Eddie Vedder proved Wednesday before a boisterous sellout crowd at the Plaza Theatre that you can take the singer out of the rock band, but you can't take the rock out of the singer.
The Pearl Jam frontman may have given his first performance in El Paso without the wall-of-sound aggression of his durable band, which fills venues 10 times the intimate Plaza's capacity, but it didn't matter whether he was playing ukulele, acoustic guitar or even, occasionally, an electric one, he just couldn't silence that rock 'n' roll heart that beats so fiercely inside.
Yes, the occasion was one of the infrequent solo tours Vedder has been doing the last four years. It had all the trappings of a quiet affair, with lots of acoustic instruments and a Spartan stage set that included various backdrops, an old portable record player, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a smoking fake camp fire and a stool on which Vedder sat for most of the 30-song, 2-hour and 25-minute performance.
Intimate it was. Quiet it was not. Even on the quieter songs. It was an acoustic rock 'n' roll show, minus the bombast of a big arena spectacle.
Vedder played eight songs from last year's quiet "Ukulele Songs," seven from his 2007 folk-rock solo debut "Into the Wild," nine from various Pearl Jam albums and a half-dozen covers, including a spirited version of the Ramones' obscurity "I Believe in Miracles" and a beautifully soaring duet with opener Glen Hansard of "Falling Slowly," the Academy Award-winning ballad the Irishman cowrote for the movie "Once."
Yet throughout the sometimes surprising, sometimes explosive, always compelling performance, Vedder could barely restrain that bellowing arena-rattling baritone, nor could he pluck his acoustic instruments without some degree of urgency.
That obvious from the opener "Waving Palms," in which Vedder played his four-string uke like an acoustic guitar on steroids. He strapped on a white Fender Stratocaster to tackle his first PJ song, "Yield" gem "Wishlist," but it was all Vedder could do to stay seated, his voice swelling into that familiar soaring growl as he tapped into its angry young man frustration.
Vedder's still pretty new to this stripped-down approach, having done only a handful of these tours as opposed to two decades of playing arenas and festivals with a band he rightly referred to as "loud." But he's pretty comfortable in the stripped down environment. This was no mere unplugged concert. There were subtle hints of staging, including painted backdrops, unobtrusive lighting, a pump organ he never played, his ever-present notebook-filled suitcase and a cardboard beer box that doubled as a drum (thanks to a foot pedal).
There were quieter moments, including a faithfully rendered version of Neil Young's haunting "The Needle and the Damage Done," a lovely version of Billy Rose's light 1929 standard "More Than You Know" and a sweetly sung version of Rose's "Tonight You Belong to Me," which featured airy, unrehearsed harmonies from El Paso singer Melissa Ibarra, a bouncy bundle of nerves he plucked out of the crowd at random.
"I was so nervous," she gushed afterwards.
Vedder's always been big fan of fan interaction, but he took it a few steps further Wednesday, playing requests from fans he met that day (including a powerful acoustic version of "Ten" classic "Porch" inspired by a fan going through dark times). He also played an untitled work-in-progress written on a Les Paul-shaped electric ukulele given to him that day by a fan.
Vedder ended the show by calling Ibarra back to the stage, along with her boyfriend and four other fans (two of whom nabbed guitar pick souvenirs) for a ragged singalong finale of "Hard Sun" from his first solo effort.
He was talkative and funny, too, cracking jokes about erections, Mormons named Norman and his diminished hearing, singled out a 9-year-old fan for a souvenir pick and a quick trip on stage, praised Tuesday's passage in four states of same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana use legislation and raved about the 2006 restoration of the Plaza Theatre.
"It's so important to keep treasures like this alive," he said.
But Vedder saved his biggest raves for the Sun City, which he'd never visited before, coming only as close as Las Cruces, where Pearl Jam played 17 years ago.
"Let me take this opportunity to say something I've never said before. Hello, El Paso," Vedder said to the approval of 2,000 roaring fans. "I'm having one of those moments. It's one of those what-the-f--- were we thinking moments. It's beautiful here."
Yes, it is. But it was even more beautiful for a few hours Wednesday night as Vedder flew without the safety net of a band and bared his rock 'n' roll soul.
He said he'd be back. Maybe he'll bring the band with him next time.
"Sleeping by Myself"
"More Than You Know" (1929, from "Great Day" and "Funny Lady")
"Elderly Woman Sitting Behind a Counter in a Small Town"
"I Believe in Miracles" (Ramones)
"Long Nights" (with Glen Hansard on bass)
"The Needle and the Damage Done" (Neil Young)
"Off He Goes"
"Les Paul Uke"
"I Am a Patriot" (Steve Van Zandt)
"Tonight You Belong to Me" (1929, covered by Frankie Laine and used in "The Jerk," with Melissa Ibarra on b. vox)
"Society" (with Hansard on b. vox)
"Sleepless Nights" (Everly Brothers, with Hansard, b. vox)
"Falling Slowly" (from "Once," with Hansard, lead vocals)
"Open All Night" (Bruce Springsteen)
"Hard Sun" (with Hansard)