Backwash

Pearl Jam accuses the Rocky Mountain News of uneven flow.

Much of the music was forgettable. But Pearl Jam's appearance at the Pepsi Center on April Fool's Day -- particularly the on-stage antics and anti-war comments of lead singer/guitar hobbyist Eddie Vedder-- reverberated through the land in Dixie Chicks-ian fashion, making headline fodder not just of the show, but of Rocky Mountain News popular-music critic Mark Brown.

Who says no one pays attention to music in Denver?

During his time on the Pepsi Center stage, Vedder endeared himself to some fans while making a fool of himself in the eyes of others. He got drunk on wine; donned a sequined suit and a George Bush mask -- which he raised on a microphone stand like a head on a stake, then stomped with his feet; ranted about censorship; expressed support for troops in the Middle East; and suggested that the current war effort is evidence that mankind has not evolved properly. You know, the usual lighthearted rock-and-roll banter.

"I don't know if you've heard about this thing called freedom of speech, man," Vedder said to a heckler who told him to shut up. "It's worth thinking about, because it's going away."

Brown's review the next day glowed with an A- rating of the band. "A great voice and a great melody can still make the day," Brown wrote, citing Robert Plant. And that wasn't all: "It's hard to imagine that many of [the band's upcoming performances] will be hotter than Tuesday night's," he said. On Thursday, April 3, the News ran another Brown piece on the concert, in which he correctly reported that "dozens" of "incensed fans" walked out mid-set, so upset were they by Vedder's Bush-bashing. The article, which appeared under the headline "Concert-goers jam exits after anti-Bush display," was later picked up the Drudge Report; various permutations of the tale -- some of which placed the walkout number at a bloated hundred, with most credited to the Associated Press -- found their way into media outlets across the country, prompting Pearl Jam to issue a statement of its own.

"Readers were led to believe a mass exodus took place," the statement reads. "It didn't, which can best be ascertained by lack of any mention of it in the show reviews from the day prior, notably Mark Brown's. Dissension is nothing we shy away from; it simply should be reported more accurately.

"Ed's talk from the stage centered on the importance of freedom of speech and the importance of supporting our soldiers, as well as an expression of sadness over the public being made to feel as though the two sentiments can't occur simultaneously."

Contrary to what the band suggests, Brown says, the timing of the two Newspieces was a matter of logistics, not politics. On his way down from the Pepsi Center's press box, where he'd filed his review to meet an early deadline, he encountered roughly 60 to 75 people leaving the show in anger. At the time, he wasn't even sure it was a story.

"I was talking to my editor about it the next day, and he said, 'When was the last time you saw 75 people leave an event for purely political reasons?'" Brown remembers. "I had signed up to get the download of the show so that I could transcribe all of his words, and I just tried to do it as straight as I could. [The quotes] are what Vedder says. It's what happened."

Considering the wrath directed at Dixie Chick Natalie Maines after her comment that she didn't relish having the leader of the free world as a neighbor, it's no shock that Vedder's performance inspired some response -- although so far, no one has called for an official boycott of the band's new disc, Riot Act. (Epic Records might not mind having that excuse for poor sales.) By last Thursday, a message board on the band's Web site, www.tenclub.net, was so jammed with postings both in support of and disgust with the band that it briefly crashed the entire Epic server. On the airwaves in Denver, the Fox's Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax invited listeners to call in with their take on the show; some said they hated the concert (one guy was particularly miffed by the opener, Sleater-Kinney: "They sounded like Romeo Void meets Siouxsie and the Banshees"), while others wondered what the big deal was.

And that's a good question. Why was anyone surprised that the notoriously loquacious lead singer used his stage time to spew his politics? Even in times of relative calm, Vedder's always on about something: In 1994, Backwash saw him perform on behalf of an endangered mountain in Arizona. (Yes, a mountain.) And late last year, when Pearl Jam performed a benefit concert at Seattle's Key Arena, the band listed thirteen social, environmental and political causes with which it was formally aligned, everything from the West Memphis 3 Legal Defense Fund to the Northwest Literacy Foundation.

The Pepsi Center show was the inaugural date on the band's first North American tour since 2000. The intervening years have provided Vedder with plenty of material, what with duct tape, Homeland Security, war, terror alerts and a president who says amusing things like "Put food on your family" and "We've got to make the pie higher." Forget Ticketmaster: Vedder's got an irresistible new machine to rage against, and he wouldn't pass up the opportunity for the world. And if it generates a few harmless news stories along the way, bringing Pearl Jam's name before a public that has largely forgotten it -- well, so much the better.

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