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Masters of jam Ed Vedder and friends have moved from grunge to the top of the heap

Last Sunday, before 4,500 hard-core fans in Kitchener, Ont., I watched Pearl Jam become the most significant band of its (and my) generation. It was a raw, passionate, bloody-minded rock 'n' roll apotheosis. And if I write here with the brazen conviction and zeal of the convert, you'll forgive me; I care about this stuff as much as the people on stage that sweltering night did.

It's not news that Pearl Jam morphed over the past 15 years from a sturdy, compelling alternative rock band into a group that had much more in common with Neil Young and Crazy Horse than Alice in Chains.

But Sunday I finally found the answer to the question that's been haunting me for a decade: Who is going to pick up the torch and run with it once we lose music's great voices? Who is the next Townshend, Strummer, Dylan, Springsteen, Lennon, U2? Seriously. Who? Bo Bice? The new Idol-friendly INXS? Green Day? Coldplay?

As ever, you see the answer was right in front of you all along. As I watched Ed Vedder, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron, Mike McReady, Jeff Ament and Boon Kasper tear through a three-hour-plus show in the middle of nowhere, the answer hit me with the force of that almighty finger bursting from the heavens on the cover of Bob Dylan's "Saved" album. It's them. They're it.

Pearl Jam didn't exactly floor me with its first album, "Ten." I thought it was solid, and certain songs -- "Black" is an obvious example -- were incredibly moving. But it seemed overproduced. I thought Soundgarden was the far better band. And Temple of the Dog offered the best of both worlds.

But Pearl Jam began changing almost immediately. After pretty much stealing the show at the first Lollapalooza, Vedder and his mates began deconstructing the myth that was being erected around them, and that's when I began to sit up and take notice. The albums got stronger and weirder immediately with he release of "Vs."

We all know what happened then: the battles with Ticketmaster, Vedder's refusal to be anything other than a normal guy in the face of a stealth-like attempt to turn him into a pretty-boy rock idol, the touring and recording with Neil Young, the albums that became much more than collections of songs, but rather, snapshots of a band striving for true, transcendent greatness.

Vedder couldn't help but be viewed as the group's spokesman, a role he probably doesn't relish but one he doesn't shirk, either. He supported Ralph Nader, rallied against the war in Iraq and fronted the band as it performed as part of last year's Vote for Change tour.

And he didn't seem to give a minute's thought to the fact that such activity is likely to have cost the band a fair portion of its transient audience and certainly some of its record sales.

That, my friends, is more punk rock than the posturing of any of these clods we see prancing across the screen in stylist-approved "punk wear" on MTV and Fuse screens.

The Kitchener Memorial Auditorium doesn't necessarily live up to its title. It looks more like a large school gym, built in the 1940s, capacity in the range of 5,000.

The hotels in Kitchener-Waterloo were, according to our cab driver, all full of Pearl Jam fans, which leads one to conclude that at least half of the audience had come from out of town. Pearl Jam may not sell millions of records anymore, but the fan base it does have is rabidly loyal and managed to sell out all of the band's September tour of Canada.

The band took the stage following Sleater-Kinney's well-received opening set, to the droning, Eastern strains of "The Long Road" and didn't let up. They offered up stunning versions of "In My Tree," "Can't Keep," "Do the Evolution," "Given to Fly," "Faithful," "Save You," "Love Boat Captain," the transcendent "Indifference," the torrid "Blood" and a host of hits, including "Alive," "Jeremy" and "Black."

Vedder was not unaware of the date of this show, Sept. 11, the fourth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He was in particularly passionate form. He was also, admittedly, full of wine, though never sloppy.

Many of the show's most powerful moments came when Vedder would speak to the crowd, disparaging George W. Bush and the Iraq war and Seattle's Boeing Co. The band grabbed John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" and rammed it down the audience's throat. Later, during a jam following "Daughter," Vedder went way out on a limb, called Bush out by name with both middle fingers raised and improvised a lyrical riff that paraphrased the final verse of Dylan's "Masters of War."

Musically, Pearl Jam astounds. Harmonically, its songs are fairly simple, balancing more straightforward folk chord progressions and melodies against angular punk and avant-garde tendencies. The result is a music that seems both daring and traditional, old and futuristic.

Guitarist McReady blows searing pentatonic solos or adds spacious sound effects with equal aplomb; his cohort Gossard holds down the fort with a rhythm guitar that would make Keith Richards proud; the rhythm section of Ament and Cameron is unrivaled among Pearl Jam's peers.

And Vedder? He's in his own league. He's been copied, badly. But his is a voice that seethes with conviction, can soothe or smash, can be mellifluous or mean and jagged, often in the space of one tune. What makes him the best my generation has managed to cough up? He means it. This is no pose.

Pearl Jam offers long shows, like Springsteen and the E Street Band did back in the day. The band can play its own brand of punk, like the Patti Smith Group, or stretch it out into unfamiliar sonic territory, like Crazy Horse. Its songs resonate, like Dylan's did and still do. It can kick out the jams with the visceral wallop of the Who.

But most importantly, Pearl Jam plays rock 'n' roll like it still matters. And when these guys are playing it, it still does.


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