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Pearl Jam's 2003 Riot Act tour kicked off in February with a concert in Brisbane, Australia, and traveled to Japan before arriving in the United States for a 48-city North American tour, which debuted April 1 in Denver.
Danny Clinch

Often imitated, never surpassed, Pearl Jam has cultivated a following of bands as well as fans

Preview: Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for the Pearl Jam concert Wednesday at the Adams Center on the University of Montana campus; expect pat-down searches. Concert begins at 8 p.m. Opening for Pearl Jam are the Scottish rockers Idlewild, whose newest full-length album is "The Remote Part."

It's hard to listen to the radio today without hearing Pearl Jam. Not necessarily THE Pearl Jam; but one of the myriad bands, from Everclear to Nickelback to Matchbox 20, who ape Peal Jam's sound. Every singer seems to want to sound like Pearl Jam front-man Eddie Vedder; and guitarist Mike McCready has had as big an influence over lead solos in the past 10 years as Eddie Van Halen did in the previous 10 years.

Nirvana may have received more press attention as the quintessential grunge band during the early '90s; but it was Pearl Jam that managed to turn grunge into an international pop music phenomenon. Where Nirvana was essentially a slowed-down, more melodic and refined punk band, Pearl Jam combined the raw energy of punk with the grandiosity of '70s-style stadium rock. The twist worked like a charm, drawing legions of mainstream teens and twenty-somethings into a musical culture that had previously been the province of self-proclaimed outsiders.

Given the band's popularity during the 1990s - no other rock band received more awards or sold as many albums - it's not surprising that they have their imitators. What is somewhat surprising is just how many, and how popular they are. Creed, Stone Temple Pilots and Bush essentially survive on their singers' Vedder-channeling vocal style; survival, in their cases, has meant chart-topping success. Missoula's KBAZ radio station bills itself as "Missoula's New Rock," but its playlist forms a Who's Who of Pearl Jam descendants and wannabes. The so-called grunge movement, and indeed Pearl Jam itself, may have lost its cred in the "knew-'em-before-they-were-cool" underground before today's fourth-graders were a twinkle in dad's eye; indeed, even post-grunge may now be passe. But is it really such a bad thing, to admit to liking a band that rose out of the collegial alterna-club scene of Seattle into international super-stardom?

Apparently not, given the rabid buy-up of tickets for next week's Pearl Jam concert, at the Adams Center in Missoula. (Note to latecomers: You're SOL! All the tickets are gone, gone, gone.)

Of course, this is one top act that has a local connection: Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament is a not-so-secret resident of the Garden City, and a native of Big Sandy. And Ament ain't no electric-fence-and-10-foot-walls recluse; he's active in local issues, and even manages to show up at the occasional club show (his most recent: a Volumen gig, of which he enthused, "I was blown away. ŠThey're at the point where bands have been together for a few years and they break up; but I hope they keep it together, because I sense something special going on there.")

Most recently, Ament has been contributing to the development of a local, publicly owned skatepark, to be constructed in McCormick Park. A lifelong avid skateboarder, Ament (along with his bandmates) has "thrown money at" skateparks in other towns and cities around the Northwest, he says. But for Missoula's park, he's been an active participant in planning the park, along with a grass-roots group of skaters including Chris Bacon of Board of Missoula.

"I still spend many of my days off skating in parks and backyard bowls and stuff, and I've seen the good and the bad. So on this one, I'm gonna be there every step of the way," says Ament. "I'm pretty excited about it. The support around Missoula has been pretty exciting."

Ament and his bandmates have committed $50,000 to construction of the park, contingent only on the city selecting "the right developer" to build it. "We've got a solid commitment from Parks (Missoula Parks and Recreation) for a piece of land down by the Orange Street Bridge, in McCormick park; we've got the land locked in and we've got a penciled-in grant from Redevelopment (the Missoula Redevelopment Agency) to pay for a good solid half of it."

But of course, such concerns take a back seat when Pearl Jam is on tour. Ament and company embarked on their current tour on April 1, to support the band's most recent release, "Riot Act." A mid-tour, 25-day break concludes when the band commences the second leg of its tour in Missoula.

"I don't think we'd go out and play if we didn't love that part of it," says Ament of his life on the road. "Especially when we have other lives at home, it's tough to dedicate that four or five months of the year away from your loved ones. We were really cranked about this record and were really looking forward to playing the songs."

Pearl Jam's success hasn't been hurt by the band's longevity. Most of its early wave grunge peers have fallen apart for reasons tragic or trivial: Nirvana didn't survive lead singer Kurt Cobain's suicide; Soundgarden and Alice in Chains didn't survive internal ego struggles.

Pearl Jam has had its troubles, both rumored and confirmed, but according to Ament, the last couple years have brought a new sense of fellowship to the group.

"We're at a point now that we can do whatever we want; we don't have a contract signed with anyone, including our agent and manager," explains Ament. "That has let us trust each other more and not be paranoid about the business aspect."

The band's members have also taken some breathing room from each other over the years. Ament himself has recorded two albums with the band Three Fish, guitarist Stone Gossard has released a couple albums with the band Brad (he's also started a record label and recording studio), and guitarist Mike McCready has released albums with Mad Season and the Rockfords. According to Ament, the personal space has proven crucial.

"We figured out around the era of 'Vitalogy' (a Pearl Jam album released in 1994) that when you're trying to do too much all the time, it takes its toll," says Ament. "Being songwriters and artists, you need that time away from being in a rock band on the road to find stuff to draw upon and write about; otherwise you end up like those bands in the '70s writing your songs about being in a traveling band or getting wasted with groupies in hotels, which isn't very interesting to listen to if you're not living that life."

It all adds up to a band that, despite years of touring and chart-topping success, has aged gracefully. When asked the secret, Ament demures.

"I thought you meant our good looks," he sighs.

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at jnickell@missoulian.com or by calling 523-5358.

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