Pearl Jam are known for sticking to their guns, whether they're fighting Ticketmaster, bootleggers, the press, the pressure of fame or each other. But everyone has their limits. For the veteran Seattle Rock band it was when their fans began to turn on them.
Singer Eddie Vedder impaled a mask of George Bush on his microphone stand during the song "Bushleaguer" at an April 1 show in Denver, the first on the band's current North American tour in support of their seventh studio album, Riot Act. No big deal — Vedder had been performing the stunt overseas for several months to wild applause. The reaction at home, though, was chillier, and it brought an unpredictable response from the notoriously principled band.
"I was surprised by the reaction, and that's why I'm over playing that song," says guitarist Mike McCready, 37, whose cousin is serving in the Persian Gulf. "If it's going to alienate people, it's not worth it. It fucked the show up. We knew he was going to do it.
... Initially, it was a David Bowie kind of thing, where he was acting out and doing things he hadn't done before.
"But it's not even that great a song. I'm an entertainer. If the crowd isn't into something we do, then we're not going to do it."
McCready — whose dad is a Vietnam vet and grandfather a World War II vet — said the band was vocal in its support of the troops but felt its anti-war message was being lost amid the hype. He said reports of dozens of fans booing and leaving the Denver show in disgust were overblown, but the incident proved that, with a decade of experience and more than 30 million records into their career, Pearl Jam maintain an intense connection to their fans.
A testament of those bonds can be heard on "Love Boat Captain," an emotional roller coaster of a song from Riot Act that chronicles the loss that almost broke the band up. "Lost nine friends we'll never know/ Two years ago today/and if our lives become too long/Would it add to our regret?" Vedder sings, eulogizing the nine fans who died during an audience crush at the Roskilde festival in 2000 during Pearl Jam's set.
"That was probably the worst time we've ever had," McCready says of the aftermath of the Roskilde tragedy. "We had to rethink things and talk to each other and cry and reach out to some of the families."
It was the closest Pearl Jam had come to breaking up since 1993, when McCready said the rest of the group were increasingly isolated from Vedder as the band's fame grew wildly out of control in the wake of its 10 million selling debut, Ten.
After some time off to regroup and deal with the aftermath of Roskilde and an investigation by Danish authorities — the band was not faulted in the deaths — Pearl Jam recorded Riot Act, a fiery collection that returns to their more up-tempo roots. Just two albums into his tenure as the group's fourth drummer, Garage Rock fanatic Matt Cameron ("We've heard all the Spinal Tap jokes, and they're true," McCready jokes) puts his distinct sonic imprint on songs such as "Get Right," which blitzes like a lost track from Seattle Garage legends, The Sonics.
In an age of Linkin Park and Sum-41, though, McCready says the band realizes that it has a core following that might never again reach the heights of the early 1990s.
"I'm just glad to still be around," McCready says modestly. "I'd be lying to you if I said we wouldn't like to sell more records. But it amazes me that people still come out and see us with all that's changed and time that's passed. We went through that whole (early '90s Grunge) era and survived it. Parts of it were exciting, like being on Lollapalooza and touring with Soundgarden and the Chili Peppers, but I love it more now because we've calmed down and we're better musicians."
Aside from the weird vibes created by "Bushleaguer," McCready said the Riot Act tour is the most fun he's ever had on the road with Pearl Jam, mostly because of the addition of Vedder's Hawaiian buddy, keyboardist "Boom" Gaspar.
"We were conscious of having another member come in and play with us, so we reworked songs to make a keyboard fit," McCready says of the band's expanded live sound.
Gaspar thickens the mood of such Pearl Jam classics as "Better Man" and "Black" as well, but mostly, McCready says, he changes the dynamic the band had gotten used to on stage.
"He's filled out the songs and made the rest of us pull back a bit," he says. "It just feels like we're really a band, and this is the way it's going to be."
McCready said it's possible Gaspar — whom Vedder met a year ago at a funeral in Hawaii — might become a permanent member of the group.
With 70 more double-album bootleg collections available by the time they wrap the second North American leg of the tour in early July, as well as a long-delayed, odds-and-sods double-CD due in the fall, there will be plenty of Pearl Jam product for some time to come. The only question now is, "What's next?" Their contract with Sony is over, and McCready says the band is enjoying the prospect of free agency.
"We're weighing all the options," he says. "We've had some label people come to see us on this tour. Neil Young gave us the best advice. He said to just know that you'll have peaks and valleys in your career. There's times when the crowd is with you, and times then they're booing you and not showing up. If you can weather those times, you'll have a good career.
"I hope we can do a few more records and people will still want to hear us and think we're viable. All I know is that no one else gets me as excited about playing music as these guys."
PEARL JAM perform at Riverbend Music Center on June 19 with Idlewild.