Everyone knows that for every band that makes it, probably 10,000 others tank in the process. It's one thing to produce a single radio hit or, better yet, a solid first album, but another accomplishment altogether to endure the dreaded follow-up effort, which will either earn fans for life or exile from thousands of CD shelves.
A visit to Denver's Pepsi Center on July 2 or 3 highlighted two mainstream bands that have not only matured out of the early, uneasy years, but also become legends in their own time. Tom Petty is as easy and likeable as ice cream, and perhaps no other band in recent history has spawned as many wannabes as Pearl Jam. Put them together on one stage swapping guest appearances and you have the recipe for a milestone gala; a pricey, but more-than-worthwhile, doubleheader.
Pearl Jam opened Sunday night with the hit anti-war single "World Wide Suicide," one of the speedy, guitar-driven tracks off their new, self-titled album. What followed over nearly the next two hours was a broad mix of classic crowd favorites from Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy, with the usual plucking of a few songs from the less-beloved Riot Act, Biurnal, Yield and No Code.
Eddie Vedder still bore the furrowed-brow, shaky-handed, angry look he became known for in the grunge era, particularly during songs like "Jeremy" and "Bushleaguer." But something was different about his on-stage presence he didn't feel really angry anymore. Perhaps it's age, but Vedder seemed more in his element during the slower tunes, like "Betterman" and "Black." This is not to say that Pearl Jam's set lacked energy far from it but rather, to say I could see more Tom Petty than Zack de la Rocha in Vedder. He displayed an evolution, wisdom and a weathered familiarity less politics, more smiles and a few surprises.
The odd b-side tune "Bee Girl" turned out to be the farthest destination on the limb for Seattle's heroes, along with an encore performance of The Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Star" with Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell. The Heartbreakers' keyboardist, Benmont Tench, also sat in with Pearl Jam for a number of songs to replace the absent Boom Gaspar who, as Vedder informed us, was tending to family matters.
Having missed Pearl Jam on just two of their major album-release tours, I will say the boys are in as good a form as ever. Mike McCready's guitar solos could only be upstaged by bassist Jeff Ament's acrobatic stage-hopping and Matt Cameron's solid rhythm work.
But by night's end, most agreed that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took Pearl Jam's spark and created a wildfire with it. Like Willie, Johnny, Bob and all the aged greats, Petty exudes a certain coolness in his natural demeanor. His stage presence is confident, but not arrogant. A sincere graciousness could be felt during song breaks, via bows, waves and smiles. From first lick to "Mary Jane's Last Dance," the Heartbreakers and their king delivered an unrelenting barrage of high-energy classic hits and the packed Pepsi Center adored every moment.
After opening with "Listen to her Heart," the Heartbreakers launched into a crowd-pleasing hat trick of "You Don't Know How It Feels," "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin'." Like Vedder through much of Pearl Jam's set, Petty didn't even need to man the microphone; the fans knew every word and a strong chorus backed each tune. Like great showmen and as a testament to their cultural pervasiveness both Vedder and Petty fell silent at times to let their fans fill in the lyrics.
Petty then treated Denver to a sampling of "Saving Grace," a tune off his new album, Highway Companion, due out July 25. A few songs later, he invited Vedder to join him for what's sure to be a highly sought-after bootleg duet of "The Waiting." The rockers together gave fans a distinct feeling of seeing something rare and special history in the making. After all, according to a recent Rolling Stone article, Petty has hinted that this might be his last tour.
But before the lights went down Sunday, Petty gave fans a fond farewell, if it is to be his last. Rolling out the perpetually popular "Learning to Fly," "Don't Come Around Here No More," "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" before a hearty encore, Petty traversed the stage with maracas, a tambourine and an assortment of guitars. The legend sure didn't move like a man on the verge of retirement.
I can only hope that we get 15 more years out of Pearl Jam, and that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers get bored off the road and out of the studio. Concert matches like this don't come often.