Crosscut Tout: Pearl Jam's performance of a lifetime

The whole new album, "Backspacer," is extraordinary, and the real star is Matt Cameron, now joining the ranks of great rock drummers.

I found a piece of unlikely happiness, lurking within Pearl Jam’s new record, “Backspacer.” The entire record is extraordinary — a combination of passionate songwriting at its core and musicianship that strikes a balance of maturity and urgency. It also has one of the best album performances by a rock drummer, ever. Matt Cameron, Pearl Jam’s longtime drummer, has pulled off the recorded performance of a lifetime.

His performance is supportive and leading, nuanced and explosive — all at the same time. While all the players put in terrific performances, the rhythm section (Cameron on drums, Jeff Ament on bass) is very much leading this band through some dynamic playing. “Amongst the Waves” is a terrific example of the rhythm section supporting a song with sophisticated dynamics (rockin’ hard at times and laying quietly in the background during other times). Cameron has joined the ranks of great rock drummers such as John Bonham, Keith Moon, Jim Keltner, Pete Thomas, Stan Lynch, and Levon Helm.

Interestingly, some of the drumming (“Got Some” and “Supersonic”) sounds like a young punk is playing on the tracks: full of the energy we might expect to come from a 20-year-old. “Gonna See My Friend” is an example of this and is also reminiscent of a very young Pete Thomas drumming on Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ record, “Last Year’s Model.” But Cameron is in his mid 40s, demonstrating that rock n’ roll drumming need not mellow nor decay with age.

It’s sad to think of some of the terrific musicians who lost their lives at an early age, victims of the strange side of rock and roll culture. What would Keith Moon sound like today? How many more great records would John Bonham have made with Led Zeppelin if he lived to be 50? All this makes me the more appreciative of rock musicians who are making music for the long run, the music getting better and better with age. And of course, Pearl Jam is a shining example, continuing to create and record great music, and doing it with integrity. I suspect that this new Pearl Jam record will become one of the most successful independent records (by that I mean no record label, a la Radiohead) in rock history.

Most of the drummers I mentioned previously are still playing great today (notably Jim Keltner and Pete Thomas are doing studio work, and Levon Helm is releasing his own recordings and about to tour with Elvis Costello). However, few hang in there this long with a singular rock band, as Cameron has done with Pearl Jam. That kind of dedication only comes from passion about the music your playing and the people you are playing with.

Josh LaBelle is the executive director of Seattle Theatre Group, a nonprofit organization that programs the Paramount and the Moore theaters in Seattle. He can be reached at editor@crosscut.com.


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