MONTANA’S junior senator, Jon Tester, a 56-year-old farmer from Big Sandy, is facing a crowd of a few hundred supporters gathered near a sculpture of a grizzly bear on the state university’s Missoula campus. Now and then a breeze blows through the rally but fails to ripple Tester’s hair, a flat-top once favored by Greatest Generation shop instructors. Like few other politicians of his rank, Tester, a populist-minded moderate Democrat whose narrow victory in 2006 was crucial to helping his party win the Senate, more closely resembles the folks he represents than they resemble themselves. He listens to the Elvis channel on Sirius XM Radio. He used to play taps on his trumpet for veterans’ funerals. Will his anti-charisma come through for him again? His challenger, Denny Rehberg, the state’s long-serving only representative, knows from the deadlocked polls that it may not.
That’s where Pearl Jam comes in. Pearl Jam’s bassist and co-founder, Jeff Ament, just happens to hail from Big Sandy, too. Ament was a hot-shot basketball player back when Tester was refereeing junior high school games in the 1970s. As Ament remembers it, they formed their bond after he bad-mouthed Tester for making a call against him, an act which should have earned him a technical or an ejection. But the ref surprised him: no infraction for his smart remark. This little friendly oversight would lead decades later, in 2005, to a big-money, big-publicity benefit concert by the one-time gods of grunge. This Pearl Jam show, say Tester and his backers, was part of what brought him his U.S. Senate seat. It also refuted the academic lie that politics is in any way a science. Politics is a kid who plays the bass whose father, the town barber, gives a retro haircut to a neighbor that follows him into his career in politics as a symbol of his unspoiled down-home integrity, convincing the kid, who has since become a rock star, to throw himself and his band behind his run.
Tonight’s show is the encore. A crowd grows outside the stadium doors, forming a lumpy, slacker-ish long line for the merchandise and t-shirt stand. An earnest old man with a clipboard works the line looking to register voters, but there’s a glitch: Maybe because the band is touring infrequently, the tickets to this rare event sold out within 15 minutes of hitting the Internet. Other tickets went out through Pearl Jam’s fan club, many of whose members have attended 30 or 40 shows over the years and are willing, like one sports executive I met, to fly overnight from Hong Kong to Seattle and drive all night to Missoula in a rental car. I ask the old man with the clipboard how many names he has added to his registration list. He’s a child of the ’60s, it appears, so he’s probably loath to sound defeatist. “I suppose it’s been twenty-five or thirty minutes,” he offers with willfully chipper, bright-eyed pathos, “and I’ve got one, I think.” He sighs. “Yes, one.”
The opening band, experienced outside as a murmuring postponement of gratification, finally falls silent, triggering a rush. I ask people pushing by if they’re Montanans, and I learn that the few who are will be voting for Tester anyway, or that they “want” to, whatever that means. Some I talk to seem skeptical of rock concerts as political instruments, but they make exceptions for Pearl Jam. They find the band uniquely credible, repeatedly mentioning Eddie Vedder’s crusade for the wrongly accused teen murderers, the West Memphis Three. “They do things on their own terms,” says a Denver salesman. “They’re not going to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”
The concert starts. A wistful mood creeps in around the edges of the sonic surge. I’m witnessing a declining form. A friend of mine, an editor at a national music magazine, was surprised when I told him about the Tester concert, observing that few of its scale and seriousness were organized this year, aside from the requisite Springsteen turn in Ohio. “I’m telling you,” said my friend, explaining the downturn, “they see what happened to Springsteen—for years, he would never endorse a candidate or play fund-raisers. Then he campaigned for Kerry and Obama and a lot of his more conservative fans wrote him off.”
From my place on in the stands, I listen to Vedder’s short speeches between songs. He ridicules Mitt Romney’s life of privilege and laments that he “has never had the thrill or terror of walking on the tightrope without a net.” He points to the stands and calls out to Senator Tester, who’s standing cheerfully inert and hefty like some kind of kitchen appliance, charmingly uncertain of how to act. (“Music,” Tester said to me before the show, “is what separates us from the animals.”) Vedder makes the small mistake of praising the senator for rousing himself every two years to run for office.
Later, after more music, he launches a story that some in the crowd may hope that he’ll cut short. It’s set in the stadium’s sauna, where Vedder says he went to relax before the show and was bothered by the genitals, the “junk,” of one of his fellow male bathers. “I was just worried that maybe he was gonna ask me to sign it,” Vedder says. “I was gonna have to be put in the embarrassing position, for really both of us, that I could only put initials.” The joke ends with a bit about how Vedder’s initials, E.V., are stretched through some type of “bar trick” until they read, “EVERYBODY DON’T FORGET TO VOTE.”
This hipster version of an Eastwood moment eventually yields to the power of raw decibels in the form of a cover of “Know Your Rights,” the Clash song. Pearl Jam, though, is not the Clash, whom it’s hard to imagine serving a mere candidate—and equally hard to imagine being asked to do so. Nor is Pearl Jam Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose “Fortunate Son” they vividly reanimated with the curatorial proficiency of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance. Instead of reverence for its majestic rage, I would have liked some mournful appreciation of what makes such rage impossible these days: namely, the obligation to pay it homage as part of a protest-music folklore project. Rocking the vote has turned into a nostalgia trip, safely evoking a subversive past while catering to the mass-market political present. In this, they walk a tightrope of their own.
Walter Kirn is a national correspondent at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Missoula Rock City.”