Live review: Eddie Vedder at the Wiltern
The Pearl Jam singer serenades die-hard adorers as he tours in support of his recent solo album, ‘Ukulele Songs.' Glen Hansard shares the stage.
It takes a lot more than that, of course, like talent, confidence, decent songs and charisma. But Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder had a notion of what he wanted Friday night at the Wiltern, so the tools were less important than the intent. Dressed, as always, as if he were getting ready to go on a hike, Vedder, ukulele in hand, walked into the sold-out theater like a man on a mission, sat down on a stool and declared the agenda in his first lyrics of the night -- "I want to shake, I want to wind out," he sang as he strummed hard on his uke, "I want to leave this mind and shout."
Which is exactly what he did, by serenading via strum and pluck an audience of die-hard adorers (some of them annoyingly so) with songs about sunrises and sunsets, about love and loss, about perceived values and the struggle to stay true to yourself when powerful forces are pushing you in other directions. Touring in support of his recent solo album, "Ukulele Songs" (which is exactly what its name suggests), Vedder has been traveling America with fellow crooner Glen Hansard, best known for his Academy Award-winning work on "Once" with the Swell Season, and singing songs in an atmosphere far removed from the electrified, distorted arena rock of Pearl Jam.
The entire evening had a casual air to it. Though Vedder headlined and jumped from uke to Fender Telecaster to acoustic guitar over the course of the night, he and Hansard, an affable Irishman with a shock of red hair, shared the stage a number of times. The two seem to be kindred spirits, capturing our attention with a voice both loud and assured. Opening with an eight-song solo set, Hansard worked six- and 12-string guitars with a fury.
But at times Hansard's delivery was overwhelming. At his worst, he sounded as if he were competing in the Mr. Universe competition -- vocal edition. He loves to flex his admittedly impressive voice, strives to manifest how wrecked, or angry, or in love he is, as though pushing the volume somehow pushes the emotion. It's a little much, especially when he's violently banging on his treble-heavy acoustic guitar; on a couple of occasions, the combination flooded the Wiltern with testosterone.
It's a problem that Vedder long ago mastered: how to manage a big voice without showing off. On paper, the ukulele is to Vedder's voice what a minibike is to an obese McCrary twin: a ridiculous proposal that might be entertaining to witness, but to what end? Such expectations have never mattered much to Vedder, as evidenced by his affection for such a twee instrument. Native to Hawaii, where Vedder lives, the ukulele over the past five years has gained a measure of respect. Vedder showed why during "Longing to Belong," which featured cellist Rudy Stein and achieved the desired emotion not with melodrama but restraint. He further illustrated his point with a number of songs from his score to Sean Penn's film "Into the Wild," the most moving of which was the closing number of the second (final) encore, "Hard Sun," a rendition of an obscure 1989 song by Canadian singer-songwriter Indio.
This crowd would have rioted without some Pearl Jam tracks and a few choice covers (Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night," Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World"), which the affable Vedder delivered respectfully. The original songs he chose stretched throughout the band's career, and included a string-quartet version of the exquisite "Just Breathe," from 2009's underrated "Backspacer," one of three in a row from the album.
Vedder's work with Pearl Jam is a case study in a vocalist learning to restrain a naturally muscular voice over the course of a career. He showed how far he's come when he tackled early songs "Sometimes," "Lukin" and "Wishlist," the latter of which, like a few other songs, featured a cameo by former Doors percussionist John Densmore. As the crowd bellowed along to every memorized lyric, Vedder, as he had done throughout the evening, played to them not as a rock singer trying to prove something, but as a musician sharing songs with a bunch of people he likes hanging around with.
-- Randall Roberts, Pop Music Critic
Photos: (top) Former Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder performs on ukulele at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles; while (below) actor and musician Glen Hansard, from The Swell Season, opened for him.