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Pearl Jam: The Band Who Took on the World and Won

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"Are they still going?" That's what a taxi driver asked me last week, en route to the Manchester Evening News Arena when I told him who I was on my way to see. "No, mate. I thought I'd spend my Wednesday evening in an empty auditorium," I replied. In my head. Much later that night.

But, as a Pearl Jam fan for 20 years, it's a question you get asked a lot. You don't mind. Heck, you secretly like it. What's interesting about having a favourite band that everyone else likes? Nothing is more revolting than the majority (Joey Barton isn't the only one who can Google up a quote).

But during their headline slot at the Isle Of Wight on Saturday - in full view of the mainstream media - Pearl Jam showed many Britons that not only are they still going, but they're tighter, closer and, ultimately, better than ever during 21 years as a rock band. For any of the other groups who had chosen to hang around and watch, it was a master-class.

The brooding angst has gone - heck, frontman Eddie Vedder is 47-years-old and cuts a much more serene, at-ease figure these days - but the intensity and vitality of performance remains.

One, shall we say, more experienced reveller at the Isle Of Wight said to me: "I've been coming to this festival for years, and that's the best performance I've ever seen." "Oh, are you a fan?" I asked, wondering if I'd met a kindred spirit. "No," he said. "I don't have any of their stuff." He will now. And the more he discovers about the band, the more he'll admire them. Because there's plenty to admire about Pearl Jam.

The pride of Seattle have done much to shun the mainstream which, as a fan, makes your heart swell with pride (perhaps a somewhat misplaced, borderline arrogant, pride, granted, but it's pride all the same). They had achieved global success in the early 1990s following the success of their first two albums, Ten and Vs (which became the fastest selling album in US history) and mega-stardom beckoned. However, having dipped their toes into the murky waters of fame, they decided it wasn't for them, and that realisation is one of the reasons they're still a band now. They clipped their own wings before getting too close to the sun.

They chose to do things their own way: they stopped making music videos following the awards magnet that was Jeremy, took on entertainment giants Ticketmaster complaining of monopolistic practices, turned down the chance to appear on The Simpsons and performed the songs they wanted to perform (no two set-lists are the same). Despite all this (but perhaps because of it), they were named "The Greatest American Rock Band" by USA Today in 2005, making them reluctant heroes. Good grief - what's not to love?

By doing everything on their own terms, the fan-base dwindled, but those who remained became fiercely loyal. You know. A bit like a cult (I've seen them nine times down the years; chump change compared to the travelling die-hards). Retrospectively - and they'd wince at this - staying under the radar was a brilliant long-term business decision.

"But if they're so anti-mainstream, why do they headline huge music festivals?" Well, hypothetical man in my head, that's because they're brilliant at what they do. Musically, they combine the anthemic bliss of The Who, the pounding melodies of The Beatles, the crunching and searing guitars of Led Zeppelin and the heartfelt sincerity of their friend Neil Young, with whom they recorded the under-rated Mirror Ball in 1995.

Young was once asked what drew him to Pearl Jam, and his reply was simple: "Soul." The late comedian Bill Hicks once complained that bands no longer "Played from their f*cking heart." He'd have loved Pearl Jam. Heart and soul.

I should end there, but as a footnote, I actually got to meet keyboard player Kenneth "Boom" Gaspar - with the band since 2002 - backstage before the Isle Of Wight gig. Gaspar could tell how much the moment meant to me - I was all waffling nerves and nonsense - and was happy to pose for pictures and chat candidly about how he came to join the band, following a chance performance in front Vedder. I came away from the fanboy experience energised, emotional and more alive, and even thinking about it now makes the pulse race faster and the heart soar. Which, in essence, sums up what it is to be a Pearl Jam fan.

They are still going. And as Bono said recently: "They'll be around for as long as they wish to be."

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