“Let’s make this place look like the church that it is,” Eddie Vedder said, turning Fenway Park into a galaxy of twinkling cellphones at Sunday’s first of two sold-out Pearl Jam concerts this week. The singer was paying homage both to the hallowed ballpark and the late Tom Petty, as Vedder pulled out a Sox-red guitar gifted by Petty to play a solo cover of “I Won’t Back Down,” with fervent support from voices behind the lights.
Nonetheless, this Fenway congregation clearly came for Pearl Jam, the Seattle grunge-era survivors who fly their rock ‘n’ roll flag with membership and spirit intact. Pearl Jam T-shirts — including a dozen fresh options at the merchandise stands — were everywhere. And fans sang along lustily, from the “I just want to scream hello!’” in “Elderly Woman behind the Counter in a Small Town” to the capstone affirmation of “Alive” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” where Vedder flung tambourines into the front rows like a pitching machine.
Pearl Jam delivered ample hits, highlighted by a lurching “Even Flow” (where guitarist Mike McCready took a ripping solo behind his head and to his knees) and the elegiac “Black.” But the band also served deep cuts for the diehards on the last stop of a summer swing through four U.S. stadiums that included rival ballparks in Seattle and Chicago. The two-and-a-half-hour show began in low light with the reflective “Sometimes” (before the aptly named “Release)” and dropped such nuggets as “Army Reserve” (with Vedder noting the sacrifice of veterans such as John McCain), “Tremor Christ” and a frisky “Out of my Mind,” a 1995 B-side played for the first time since 2009.
That takes a kind of faith that Pearl Jam enjoys in Boston, where the group first played in 1991 just across Lansdowne Street at Avalon (Vedder told of sneaking into Fenway Park while the band was staying at the nearby Howard Johnson). Vedder offered an acoustic “Just Breathe” as a “romantic” offering to a couple bearing a sign that they were pregnant for Pearl Jam at Fenway in 2016 and now with child. In keeping with the local props, McCready sported an Aerosmith Rocks T-shirt, while bassist Jeff Ament later donned an SSD shirt in honor of that ’80s Boston hardcore band. And Vedder — who thanked the Red Sox from top brass to the groundskeeper — wore a crimson Sox jersey to run along the stage wing and into the front-rail crowd during a jam-scorched “Porch.”
But the best local nod came when Vedder invited singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz out to play his group Buffalo Tom’s “Taillights Fade,” which the Pearl Jam singer called one of his favorite songs of all time. “I want to play it cool but, dude, I’m playing Fenway Park with Pearl Jam,” Janovitz exclaimed, to which Vedder chimed, “We’re playing with Bill,” and the two friends proceeded to trade hearty verses and choruses. It was that kind of love-in at Fenway, where Pearl Jam’s bound to scatter other hits and surprises in finishing its tour and the park’s concert season on Tuesday.