Toward the end of Pearl Jam's huge 20th-anniversary celebration on September 4th, Eddie Vedder returned to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and began playing a sweet little tune he'd written just hours before. "Couldn’t have told me back then that it would someday be allowed to be so in love with life, as deeply as we are now," he sang, his voice full of genuine gratitude. "Never thought we would, never thought we could/So glad we made it/I’m so glad we made it/I’m so glad we made it to when it all got good."
Those words summed up the feel-good vibe at PJ20, a two-day lovefest that celebrated everything Pearl Jam has accomplished over the past two decades. Tens of thousands of devotees descended on East Troy, Wisconsin's famed Alpine Valley Music Theatre to spend their Labor Day weekend with the band. They came from all over the world, waving the flags of Japan, Mexico, Peru, Italy and other far-flung nations over their heads in the enormous outdoor amphitheater. They queued up all day to get a chance to see band artifacts housed in an on-site Pearl Jam museum, and they cheered their lungs out when their heroes took the stage.
Pearl Jam rewarded the faithful with two days and nights of top-notch guitar rock. The lineups for Saturday and Sunday were the same: Hand-picked openers including Glen Hansard, Joseph Arthur, Liam Finn, John Doe and thenewno2 played on two small side stages in the afternoon, followed by hard-charging performances from Mudhoney, Queens of the Stone Age and The Strokes on the main stage – all leading up to a killer three-hour Pearl Jam set each evening.
Each night also featured a previously unannounced Temple of the Dog mini-set in the middle of Pearl Jam's show. Twitter rumors beforehand had indicated that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell might join the band to reunite their beloved pre-Pearl Jam project – and Cornell got possibly the loudest crowd reactions of the weekend each time he swaggered on stage and ripped through dusty 1991 classics like "Hunger Strike," "Say Hello 2 Heaven," "Call Me a Dog" and "Reach Down." But Pearl Jam gave the audience two very distinct experiences each night, completely switching up the set lists in their usual fashion.
After a long day of rain on Saturday, Pearl Jam opened their set with "Release," as super-pumped fans sang along to each and every word. After that they spent most of the night digging into rarely played deep cuts like 1998's "Push Me, Pull Me" and 2000's "In the Moonlight." Anyone who came to Alpine Valley on Saturday hoping to hear the big hits probably picked the wrong night. But the set list was surely a treat for the true believers who know every B-side and outtake by heart – and that description seemed to apply to most of the people in attendance. That said, the crowd absolutely lost it when they heard the opening lick of 1994 smash "Better Man," calling out the entire first verse and chorus while Vedder looked out in wide-eyed wonder over the teeming lawn. "[People said] this ain't gonna happen," he said of the band's 20-year milestone a bit later. "That it's a dream, against the odds. I'm glad we didn't listen. "
Special guests abounded on Saturday – the Strokes' Julian Casablancas wailing on "Not for You," Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme livening up "In the Moonlight," thenewno2's Dhani Harrison rocking out on "State of Love and Trust" and more. The biggest cameo of all, of course, came from Cornell. After Temple of the Dog's Saturday set, whose highlights included a cover of Mother Love Bone's "Stardog Champion" and a monumental Vedder-Cornell duet on "Hunger Strike" (watch video below), Pearl Jam returned for a cover-filled encore including the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" and a rowdy spin through the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" with help from members of Mudhoney. "Let's do this again tomorrow!" Vedder said to close out the night.
Pearl Jam's members seemed to be everywhere on Sunday afternoon, when sunnier weather meant big audiences for the sidestage openers. PJ bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready all came out to back Joseph Arthur on tunes including a strong new Ament-penned rocker called "When the Fire Burns" and Arthur's signature "In the Sun." A grinning Vedder popped up to play drums with Liam Finn, dashed off stage, then reappeared later to duet with Glen Hansard on "Falling Slowly," drawing packed crowds.