Written by Jessica Letkemann • Photography by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images • April 7, 2017
Pearl Jam has played nearly a thousand shows since it formed in 1990, and the iconic Seattle band’s powerful ability to turn a rock show into a magical experience is part of the reason they’re joining the league of legends in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2017. Since it’s impossible to distill all that history into 10 moments, consider these 10 shows just a glimpse of the band’s 27-years of epic live performances.
This is where it all began – Pearl Jam’s very first concert when the band was less than a month old. Frontman Eddie Vedder had just flown from San Diego to Seattle to meet, audition and rehearse with his new bandmates guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Dave Krusen, but inspiration struck quickly. Most of the songs that would become the band’s classic debut album, Ten, were written in their first two weeks together. This gig at the tiny Off Ramp club shows the embryonic Ten songs taking shape and strength, and the band’s raw on-stage musicality gelling.
You have to watch all the way through this version of “Porch” to catch Vedder’s famous dive into the astonishingly large and raucous crowd. By the summer of 1992, Ten was on a rocket toward the top of the charts on the strength of “Alive” and “Even Flow” (and a pair of music videos that tried to capture the feeling of a PJ show). If ever there was a time that you couldn’t take your eyes off the band, it was this era. PJ, which now included drummer Dave Abbruzzese, were a blur while Vedder leapt like Tarzan from the rafters and speaker stacks of venues in North America and Europe.
Imagine 47,000 fans packed into a giant stadium in the midst of a hundred-degree Chicago summer in Vedder’s hometown in the white, hot glare of being the biggest band in the U.S.. Now imagine it’s one of the band’s only scheduled concerts, and that they put those 47,000 fans and millions more listening on the radio through a live workout nearly three hours long, running through favorites from Ten, sophomore album Vs., and third album Vitalogy plus tons of unexpected covers (Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”). You’re welcome.
1996 was the year the band’s fourth and most sonically experimental album No Code landed, partially propelled by then-drummer Jack Irons. By then, the band had become known for incredibly bespoke shows: every night’s setlist was different, giving rise to a tribe of fans who travelled to see multiple gigs on the same tour. This three-hour extravaganza in a crumbling soccer stadium wedged between Manhattan and the Bronx was a study in masterful setlisting, complete with one of Vedder’s most interesting speeches about the power of identity and fandom.
It wasn’t until 1998 that the band played at New York’s famous Madison Square Garden for the first time, and the adrenaline was palpable onstage and in the sold-out audience particularly on the second show of the two-night run. The second night, with drummer Matt Cameron onboard, was the culmination of a fan-led sign campaign to request the Singles soundtrack rarity “Breath.” For the third show in a row, thousands of fans held up 8-1/2” x 11” sheets of paper that said “Breath,” and when the band obliged the whole arena erupted into an even bigger party. Toward the end of the gig, Vedder nodded to the band’s early days by tossing his microphone over an overhead rigging, and climbing up its cable after he sung his heart out on “Alive.”
Pearl Jam’s second pair of MSG gigs five years later were no less incendiary, especially the first night when the whole band got the super-hyped crowd jumping up and down so hard during “Do The Evolution” that the arena floor physically bounced for most of the song. It felt like an earthquake and it was mighty. A stagehand informed the band that only three other acts in the arena’s long, long history have been able to make the floor to bounce, Bruce Springsteen among them.
It wasn’t just a Pearl Jam Halloween show on a full moon night. It wasn’t just a gig across the street from the World Series. It wasn’t just the very last gig played at Philly’s most famous arena before the wrecking ball came to knock it down. It was all of these things, and the whole was even greater than the sum of those pretty awesome parts. The last night of a four-night stand closing down the Spectrum, the show brought an incredible 40-song, two encore setlist packed with favorites (“Corduroy,” “Better Man,” “Jeremy”), ultra-rarities (“Bugs,” “Sweet Lew,” “Out of My Mind”), and even a cover of “Whip It” with the whole band dressed up like Devo in yellow hazmat suits and red flowerpot hats.
Pearl Jam curated a two-day festival at E. Troy Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley as part of the celebration of its 20th anniversary, playing a long, rarity-rich set each of the nights following openers Mudhoney, Queens of the Stone Age, and the Strokes. During the weekend, something of a Pearl Jam holy grail occurred: Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell popped up unannounced to form a reunion of early supergroup Temple of the Dog. Once you witness Cornell and Vedder singing “Hunger Strike” to 40,000 fans, you’ll never forget it.
The date of this concert spans two days on the calendar because the show that began on a humid Saturday night ended up going until 2 a.m. on Sunday thanks to a gigantic rain delay. The Diehard Cubs fan Eddie Vedder didn’t want to let his band’s first gig at the historic friendly confines get scrubbed after just 45 minutes due to the weather, so with the cooperation of the Cubs, the City, the staff, and all 41,000 fans, everyone was able to wait it out. When PJ came back onstage at midnight, they came packing two more hours of tunes, a cameo by Mr. Cub himself Ernie Banks, and rousing singalong to Vedder’s Cub anthem “All the Way.”
You never know when a famous PJ show will happen, but always keep your eyes peeled when the band plays Philadelphia, home to vocal fans and double-night sell outs. When Pearl Jam’s spring 2016 tour rolled around to Philly, the venue celebrated the band with the unfurling of a flag in the rafters signifying ten sold-out Philly shows. But Eddie, Stone, Jeff, Mike and Matt had an even bigger present for the crowd: they played debut album Ten in its entirety for the first time since 1992, delighting fans in waves as they started to recognize what was happening. And that was just the beginning of what would turn into yet another inventive three-hour rock out.
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