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Pearl Jam concert had hometown feel, from Ament to Montana flags to Missoula lyrics

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When Pearl Jam first released the song, "Not For You," back in 1994, singer Eddie Vedder sounded downtrodden when he said, "all that's sacred comes from youth," with the caveat that young people "had no power, nothing to do."

Twenty years later, he sings the last half as "you've got the power, there's so much to do."

The small but telling change sums up the band's show on Monday, which they branded Rock2Vote, and was their second performance at Washington-Grizzly Stadium at the University of Montana.

The "rock" portion of the title meant a two-and-a-half hour trip through their catalog: from "Even Flow" and "Alive" off of their debut "Ten," to red-level versions of songs from "Lightning Bolt," their 10th album released in 2013.

The "vote" portion came in the form of Vedder's admonitions to participate in the mid-term elections, telling the crowd they had strength in numbers. They were here, after all, because bassist Jeff Ament is from Big Sandy, the same small town as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who is running for re-election against Montana Auditor Matt Rosendale in November.

Vedder said it's "peculiar" how a certain someone is obsessed with crowd sizes.

"There is one crowd size that we would be proud of, and that we would brag about. And that is if the state of Montana had the largest youth vote, the largest crowd, that came together in this upcoming election. That I would brag about all (expletive) day," he said.

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Pearl Jam's Missoula concert has an unusual, hometown vibe. Elsewhere on this short U.S. tour, they're playing in Seattle, Chicago and Boston to crowds double the size of the stadium on campus.

They come through thanks to Ament, who is likely the first and only Montana native in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He lives in Missoula part time, and has a fan club unto himself thanks to his support of skateparks around the state. His parents were seated backstage and came out for some applause and a hug. It was an intimate stadium show in a city that only gets stadium shows every six years, if that.

Ament took lead on the set list, and included songs he wrote, such as "Low Light" and "Pilate." Early in the concert, he threw in "In My Tree," a cult favorite song off a cult favorite album, "No Code," that has a rolling drum pattern and hypnotic bass lines. He wrote the music for "Jeremy," one of the songs that made the band famous, and started the song alone on a darkened stage with his 12-string bass. On other songs, he brought out his upright. During an encore, he came out with an acoustic and accompanied Vedder alone on "Bee Girl."

As a whole, this line-up, now together 20 years, sounds dialed in but raw, with dual guitar work by Mike McCready and Stone Gossard and a rhythm section of Ament and drummer Matt Cameron. Keyboard player Boom Gaspar got his signature yell of "Boom!" at the end of the concert.

Vedder was his usual self — an easily imitated but unmistakable singer who can express vulnerability and defiance often at the same time. It's hard to think of another vocalist who would transform unguarded lyrics like, "the waiting drove me mad, you're finally here and I'm a mess," into a heavy-rock anthem like "Corduroy." The band has extended from the studio version into a multi-part epic with several solos by Mike McCready, whose technique has only gotten better with time. Oftentimes, Vedder and company seem as though, as teenagers, they heard the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," with its wind-up-and-release climax and Roger Daltrey's iconic screaming, and set out to create music that aims for that intensity at all times.

During "Given to Fly," which aims as high for uplift as a U2 song, he flipped a lyric from "he made it to the ocean" to "he went to Missoula." He drank wine, he threw tambourines in the crowd. He made some signature jumps off of the monitors and toted around a Montana flag.

After "Down," one of their poppier songs, Vedder had the crowd help out passing a tambourine to a little girl deep on the floor, watching from (probably) her dad's shoulders. He paused the show at one point to chastise a crowd member in the front who was getting kicked out.

His voice remains strong as ever, and ironically he doesn't even have to sing if he doesn't want to. Without much prompting, the crowd can finish lines for him. At the end of a ripping take on "Even Flow," he stepped from the stage onto a riser and let the fans finish the last chorus for him. "Daughter?" They know it all. They've turned many of their classics into extended jams, with call-and-response sections. "Daughter," one of their best ballads, a compact drama about overcoming trauma, bled into "It's OK," with its admonition that "you don't have to run and hide away." "Porch," another "Ten" classic, was morphed into a lengthy, noisy guitar workout.

Pearl Jam prides itself on its values, and so the causes bleed into the songs and vice versa: A lengthy cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" isn't a song they play just at a mid-term concert, it's a song they play so often that they've made it their own creation. (According to the date on their website, they've played it more than 300 times.)

The band sported some Montana-appropriate gear: Vedder was wearing an Evel Knievel jacket at the start of the show. Ament had a shirt for the band Who Killed Society, an early '80s Missoula punk band that he knew from his time here. (He recently helped them put out an EP recorded with engineer Steve Albini, a Hellgate High School graduate.) When the band came out for the second set, the entire group wore custom shirts that spelled "Tester" in a creative graphic design style not normally associated with political campaigns. It was a design created by Missoula artist Jack Metcalf of Real Good Studios for a prior Tester campaign and printed by University of Montana art professor Elizabeth Dove by request of the band just before the show, she said.

(Rosendale's campaign sent a statement about the concert that said: "Time and time again, Jon Tester has proven he is a "Nothingman'' for President Trump by opposing his agenda every step of the way.'' Rosendale said he would "help President Trump advance his America first agenda.'')

Regarding politics, Vedder took plenty of opportunities to talk about voting. He paused to discuss the idea of Election Day as a national holiday. "It's the one day that all us Americans, we are all equal. No matter your wealth, no matter your status in life, no matter your age, accomplishments," he said.

Vedder said voting in large numbers is the only way to make your opinions heard, when politicians can be swayed by lobbying and corruption. And Russians. He made a few jokes about collusion and fake news.

Regardless, he said, "voting is the antidote, It is your vote they can't deny," he said, as the band kicked into "Can't Deny Me," a hard-edged new single.

As part of the Rock2Vote concept, they prominently displayed a number that you could text to get information about voting. Four nonprofits, Forward Montana, Montana Native Vote, Planned Parenthood of Montana, and Montana Conservation Voters, were on hand during the pre-concert festival to help register voters.

Ament took to the microphone briefly to thank all the organizations who set up the festival and the 20-plus nonprofits who set up booths.

By this point, the sun had set and Vedder asked everyone to hold up their phone screens as a show of appreciation to everyone who put in time on the event, and jumped into John Lennon's "Imagine." 

Speaking of quieter songs, they also worked in "Better Man," which Tester has called his favorite song. They closed with, "Indifference," that contains the questioning line, "How much difference does it make?"

It's a calming closer to a cathartic show, one that could be heard around the valley, that seems to answer the question on its own.

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