Pearl Jam in London: a masterful lesson in the power of music

PJ in Hyde Park
(Image credit: Sandra Sorensen)

It’s been a very long time since grunge legends Pearl Jam played a huge outdoor summer show in the UK, the last one being at Hyde Park as part of Hard Rock Calling in 2010. But then, wouldn’t you know it, two come along at once.

Eddie Vedder's band returned to Hyde Park once again for a pair of shows on July 8 and 9, bringing an eclectic supporting cast across the two days. We were there on day one to bear witness.

Louder line break

Aside from the main attraction, the big draw on the Friday evening was the prospect of seeing alt-rock godfathers Pixies as main support, but there was plenty more going on throughout the day, with the likes of The Murder Capital, Life and Glorious Sons welcoming those who showed up in the afternoon.

The 'Best of the Rest' award goes to October Drift who, sandwiched between the two big hitters on the site's tiny Bird Cage stage, beautifully channeled '90's indie and alternative rock with a set that veered from Mudhoney’s harshness to Teenage Fanclub’s slacker melodicism. Very decent indeed.


(Image credit: Sophie Jouvenaar)

They probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Pixies, although you could say that about pretty much every band on the bill to be fair. The Boston quartet arrive onstage armed with an arsenal of songs that inspired the entire alternative rock boom of the 1990’s, and, unlike many of their contrarian peers, Pixies are more than happy to play them.

Over the course of their 18-song set, only one tune - recent single There's A Moon On, from the forthcoming Doggerel album - comes from their post-reformation era, which might be good for the casuals, but, actually, 2019’s Beneath the Eyrie album was fantastic, and we’d have liked to have heard something from that, or Blue Eyed Hex from Indie Cindy even.

It’s a minor grumble though, and working out what to you’d have to drop to accommodate it from the likes of Here Comes Your Man, Monkey Gone to Heaven, Gouge Away, Tame, Caribou, Wave of Mutilation, Hey... look, Pixies have a lot of fabulous songs is all we’re saying. So, we get it. Plus, being a support band at a show of this size is a pretty thankless task, so keeping the big guns coming makes a lot of sense, and means that the notoriously fickle Hyde Park crowd are engaged for the majority of the time.

Pixies look great too, with every member dressed all in white, apart from green shirted drummer David Lovering who clearly didn’t get the memo: Black Francis looks trim and sounds as acerbic as ever, and bassist Paz Lenchantin, formerly of A Perfect Circle and Zwan, wearing sunglasses so huge they would make U2's Bono green with envy, might never be accepted by some purely for not being Kim Deal, but she brings glamour and effortless cool to the band.

There are a couple of moments when Pixies are a tad on the slack side, Joey Santiago’s solo toward the end of Here Comes Your Man goes full Nick Jonas at one point, but when you’ve got an entire field singing along to Where Is My Mind? or hearing a cacophonous closing version of Debaser that still sounds as magnificently spiteful as it did three and a bit decades ago, it’s impossible not to understand why Pixies are so beloved, and how great they still are.


(Image credit: Sophie Jouvenaar)

Pearl Jam stroll onstage to a mass singalong of The Beatles' All You Need Is Love and join in, swaying their arms and belting the song's chorus, looking every inch the music fans that they so obviously are.

Of all the superstar artists doing the rounds these days, none appear to have kept such obvious joie de vivre about playing live and creating as Pearl Jam do. As Eddie Vedder approaches the mic and picks out the opening to Betterman it’s a truly spine-tingling moment, when his voice comes in, a voice utterly untouched or ravaged at all by the passing years, it’s momentous. A spectacular start. 

In these types of scenarios, most bands would play it safe, tease out a few of the hits and then maybe settle into some deeper cuts, but Pearl Jam have made a career of being one of the most unpredictable live acts on the planet. You never really know what you’re going to get, and what we get next is Low Light, a deep cut album track from 1998’s Yield, and the tour's first version of Breath from the Singles soundtrack. 

It’s around this portion of the show that the two different types of fan present here tonight reveal themselves; a handful of folks wait patiently, clearly unfamiliar with the songs, but clearly getting more and more distracted as Pearl Jam continue to mine lesser-known material for the first hour of the set, whilst another group dare not blink for fear of missing a second of the band and emotionally bawl along with every note of everything they are served up. A middle-aged gentleman next to us cannot contain himself as Pearl Jam launch into Light Years from 2000’s Binaural, squealing “This is my favourite ever song!” whilst a couple of people around him check their phones. 

To Pearl Jam’s credit, they are such a fantastic live band, that even the casuals can’t help but be drawn in by the songs that they don’t know, due to the passion of the band playing them. Vedder is, of course, one of the most charismatic characters in the history of rock, and he seems to genuinely exist in the moment, you get none of the pre-determined stage patter or easy crowd-pleasing tricks so common in most lead singers. Instead, he seems entirely natural onstage, pausing at one point to observe the red sky that illuminates Hyde Park as the sun sets. It doesn’t sound like a line as he mutters, “Wow, nature”, and you believe his wonderment.

As for the rest of the band; Mike McCready remains Pearl Jam’s showman, running the length of the stage and playing solos behind his head, while Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, giving off big Jamiroquai vibes with the size of his hat, are content to grin along and hold it all together. Matt Cameron, meanwhile, remains one of the finest men ever to place his behind on a drum stool. 

As we reach the second half of the set, Pearl Jam begin to tease out a few crowd pleasers; a wonderful version of Daughter comes just after a huge sounding Even Flow, and the band drop in a cracking version of Public Image Limited’s Public Image in the middle of epic runs through Given To Fly, Once and Porch. 

When they return for the encore, Vedder tells us that if he could have one crowd join the band then we would be that crowd. In the hands of most vocalists, it would seem like a cheesy line, but, again, you believe him. When that iconic bassline from Jeremy hits seconds later Hyde Park erupts, and with Indifference, a sublimely euphoric Alive and their traditional sign off of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World - with tennis legend John McEnroe joining the band on guitar - to close, everyone is finally united. 

Pearl Jam understand the power of music, and their powers are as potent as ever. They'll return here 24 hours later to play an almost entirely different setlist - Why Go, State Of Love And Trust, Not For You, Animal, a cover of The Who's Baba O'Riley with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr guesting - and thrill all over again.

What a night. What a weekend. What a band.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.