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Pearl Jam

Second only to NIRVANA as innovators and pioneers of the grunge movement, although still at the core of Seattle, Washington’s alternative hard-rock scene, multi-platinum selling PEARL JAM also incorporate elements of punk-rock and skewed balladry.
The history of the group carries back to bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard’s post-GREEN RIVER time in MOTHER LOVE BONE, a cult combo on the threshold of big things when lead singer Andrew Wood overdosed in March 1990. From a spin-off tribute band TEMPLE OF THE DOG, lead guitarist Mike McCready was drafted in, while fresh vocalist Eddie Vedder (who’d supplied lyrics and vox on an overdubbed demo) and drummer Dave Krusen completed the line-up; note that SOUNDGARDEN’s Matt Cameron played on said demo. Abandoning their Mookie Blaylock moniker, but in keeping with the basketball theme on the cover sleeve of their Epic Records debut set, the group finally emerged in May ‘91 after six months in the studio. Released that August and somewhat overshadowed by NIRVANA’s “Nevermind”, TEN (1991) {*9} slowly – at a snail’s pace – scaled the US charts, and with a hefty media buzz, eventually peaked at No.2; British fans placed it in the Top 20.
With Vedder supplying the lyrics and Gossard and Ament writing the music, “Ten” was a powerfully assured debut, transforming the grunge monster into a sleekly melodic rock beast. From the opening chords of `Once’, to the crescendo build-up of `Black’ and the pleading 9-minute footnote `Release’, it was clear the motley crew were no MOTLEY CRUE. Vedder’s soulful bellow was a key factor, the singer wringing emotion from every note of the anthemic `Alive’, the almost Southern-tasting `Even Flow’ and the affecting `Jeremy’ (incidentally all Top 30 singles in Britain). Granted, comparisons to LED ZEPPELIN were a little unfair, but the band’s lumbering sound seemed the antithesis of the cathartic rush with which NIRVANA had revolutionised a stale music scene and Kurt Cobain was spot on with his infamous criticisms, despite cries of sour grapes. While their intentions may have been honourable, PEARL JAM ushered in a tidal wave of dull as dishwater, sub-metal masquerading as grunge; most of it, funnily enough, released on major labels. Nevertheless, the kids loved it, especially the American ones, as the band embarked on a punishing touring schedule (rehab-bound Krusen had now made way for Dave Abbruzzese. They also found time to make a cameo appearance for main actor Matt Dillon’s band (Citizen Dick) in the Cameron Crowe film, Singles, based on the burgeoning Seattle music scene.
As well as standing in for JIM MORRISON when The DOORS were eventually inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, Vedder performed a heart stopping version of DYLAN’s `Masters Of War’ (playing mandolin) at the veteran’s anniversary concert in 1993. The same year also saw the release of a PEARL JAM follow-up, VS. {*7}; the band’s fiercely loyal fanbase propelling the album straight in at No.1 in the US charts (No.2 in Britain). A more ragingly visceral affair, `Go’ gave Eddie something to get his teeth into, while the more reflective `Daughter’ and fellow UK Top 20 entry `Dissident’, proved how affecting the band (and particularly Vedder) could be when they dropped the derivative hard rock assault.
Along with their new best buddy, NEIL YOUNG, the quintet seemingly have an abiding love of vinyl, releasing third set VITALOGY (1994) {*8} initially on record only, something which didn’t prevent the band scaling the US chart once again. While not exactly vital, as the title might suggest, the group-penned record saw PEARL JAM going back to basics and injecting their behemoth-rock with a bit of stripped down energy. Loyal to the hardcore punk-rock cause, the hit `Spin The Black Circle’ and opening salvo `Last Exit’, were in stark contrast to `Not For You’ and the power-ballad `Better Man’; the quirky novelty `Bugs’ showed they’d been on a reading frenzy of sorts – Naked Lunch probably on top of the heap. The man who found Eddie Vedder, Jack Irons (ex-RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS) was now installed as sticksman.
The following year saw PJ backing idol NY on the so-so “Mirrorball” album, the fruition of their musical partnership that had begun a few years back; a single billed as “Merkinball” but featuring two alternatively-titled tracks (`I Got I.D.’ and `Long Road’) reached Top 30 status late ’95, while each member – with the exception of Dave – took time to moonlight other projects. The following year PEARL JAM returned to full force with NO CODE (1996) {*6}, an album that showed a lighter, acoustic side. Spiritual and soul-searching rather than punk-infused (bar `Hail, Hail’, `Habit’ or the RAMONES-esque `Mankind’), Vedder was in mantra mood on the likes of `Who You Are’ and `In My Tree’. Unfortunately if not predictably, the fans were not best impressed by the album’s more experimental turn, and it quickly faded from view after a relatively brief stay at the US No.1 spot and the UK Top 3; for the movie Dead Man Walking, Eddie co-wrote and sang on two tracks; `The Long Road’ and `The Face Of Love’. While battles with Ticketmaster resulted in the group spending months off the road, Jeff Ament’s THREE FISH (a side-project led by Robbi Robb of TRIBE AFTER TRIBE and featuring FASTBACKS drummer Richard Stuverud) released their first of two sets, `Three Fish’ (1996); although it went unnoticed outside the confines of an indie/alt-buying public; inspired by a mystical excursion to Egypt, 1999’s sonically searching follow-up, `The Quiet Table’, was described as both intriguing and turgid.
While the Brendan O’Brien-produced YIELD (1998) {*5} album heralded a return to meatier fare, PEARL JAM records were beginning to follow the time-honoured heavy-metal pattern of an initial high chart placing followed by a rapid descent into obscurity. All the signs were of a cult, diehard fanbase and one which lapped up both the mammoth US arena tour of summer ‘98 and its spin-off album, LIVE – ON TWO LEGS (1998) {*6}; the latter saw the re-introduction of Matt Cameron when Irons returned to old pastures. Of the disappointing studio record (the live set comprised nothing new except a rendition of NEIL YOUNG’s `Fuckin’ Up’), one could witness their attempts at light experimentation (the spoken-word `Push Me, Pull Me’ was ill-advised), although only the garage-bounce of `Brain Of J.’ and `Do The Evolution’ worked; the folky `Wishlist’ and the crescendo-cutting `Given To Fly’ pleased singles fans at least.
Bizarrely enough, the band then proceeded to score their biggest US hit in years with a cover of The Cavaliers/J. Frank Wilson chestnut, `Last Kiss’. Originally part of a fan-club only covers series, the single was given a full release due to popular demand and ended up narrowly missing the top slot in summer ‘99.
The Tchad Blake-produced BINAURAL (2000) {*7} resumed normal service as PEARL JAM entered the new millennium seemingly oblivious to changing fads and fashions. Boosted by two further UK hits, Ament’s `Nothing As It Seems’ and the Vedder-Gossard-McCready composition `Light Years’, the record was genuinely sharper as production values were on this occasion, above par.
A sort of GRATEFUL DEAD for the post-grunge generation may be a comparison not too far off the mark although PEARL JAM adopted a slightly different attitude to bootlegging. While the late JERRY GARCIA and crew seemingly encouraged their fans to tape away to their hearts content, Vedder’s mob made a stubborn attempt to out-bootleg the bootleggers by recording every single date of their European and British tours, while subsequently releasing them as a completists series of 72 double (or even triple) CD sets – a discographer’s nightmare indeed.
Vedder and Co were booking studio space come 2002, reading the RIOT ACT {*7} to anyone who hadn’t already had their fill with the interminable live sets. Musically, little had changed and it seemed PEARL JAM were determined to make as few concessions to contemporary musical mores as possible. Probably a good thing, especially when it resulted in one of the more palatable albums of their stodgy oeuvre; check out `I Am Mine’ (a UK Top 30 breaker), opener `Can’t Keep’, `You Are’ and `Love Boat Captain’.
Finally coming to the end of their Epic Records contract, the ‘Jam released the self-explanatory LOST DOGS: RARITIES AND B-SIDES (2003) {*6}, a selective, rather than exhaustive, rake through the archive with the not inconsiderable incentive of eleven unreleased tracks. Unusually – or perhaps not in PEARL JAM’s case – the band’s first release for R.C.A. was yet another (!) live album, an acoustic set entitled BENAROYA HALL: OCT 22, 2003 {*5} – recorded at a charity gig – with Vedder running through DYLAN’s `Masters Of War’ one more time (almost as compelling as the Zimmerman tribute version) as well as VICTORIA WILLIAMS’ `Crazy Mary’, the RAMONES `I Believe In Miracles’ and SHEL SILVERSTEIN’s gallows humour “classic”, `25 Minutes To Go’.
The band finally released a set of new material in PEARL JAM (2006) {*7}, its eponymous title reflecting both a new beginning and a forthright, back-to-the-roots sound. Again just missing out (to TOOL’s “Days”) for US pole position, the album was trailed with the Bush-berating `World Wide Suicide’, a near Top 40 miss, but a pointer to a renewed sense of purpose. Fast-forward a year, and a dozen if one counts his compositions for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, EDDIE VEDDER unleashed the bleak beast that was 2007’s `Into The Wild’ OST.
Their insistence to release live concert sets was never more full in-yer-face with the release of a 7-disc box set for Rhino Records, LIVE AT THE GORGE 05/06 (2007) {*6}, but although it emptied the pockets of any once-rich PEARL JAM disciples, fans could at least hear their heroes plugging their heroes by way of HENDRIX (`Little Wing’), The WHO (`Baba O-Riley’), NEIL YOUNG (`Rockin’ In The Free World’), TOM PETTY (`I Won’t Back Down’) and even MOTHER LOVE BONE (`Crown Of Thorns’). Time then for a fresh set, you bet!
BACKSPACER (2009) {*7} saw two things return: the production of O’Brien (eleven years in waiting) and a No.1 again. That quiet balladeering side of Vedder took hold on `Just Breathe’, while back-to-back chart entry `The Fixer’ was a fiery cut; as was `Gonna See My Friend’ and breakneck head-banger `Supersonic’. LIVE – ON TEN LEGS (2011) {*5} – a sequel to “On Two Legs” – housed tracks from as early as 2003, and of course it carried on their stubborn-as-a-mule approach to give ailing fans more fill-in live covers, this time through John Lydon’s classic of three decades past, `Public Image’.
A busy year for both VEDDER and PEARL JAM, respective sets `Ukulele Songs’ and the soundtrack TWENTY (2011) {*5}, kept both parties in high profile.
PEARL JAM were back among classic-rock’s top dogs for 2013’s LIGHTNING BOLT {*8}. Now appropriately “ten” albums into their account, PJ call the shots on angst-y pieces, including `Mind Your Manners’, but it’s the broody and passionate Vedder who served up some softer and deft touches for `Sirens’ (a minor hit), `Pendulum’ and the climactic `Yellow Moon’; the acoustic highlights come through others, `Sleeping By Myself’ and `Swallowed Whole’.
So like a good devotee one had finally attained the plethora of limited-edition official bootleg recordings (and three other bona fide live sets to boot), did one really want another PEARL JAM performance on CD. Turned out that American fans couldn’t get enough, guaranteeing LET’S PLAY TWO: LIVE AT WRIGLEY FIELD (2017) {*6} a Top 30 proposition. Eddie Vedder’s love of baseball (i.e. Chicago Cubs) was a good enough excuse to film the brace of gigs on August 20 and 22, 2016. All the big hitters are here; but all batted out of the proverbial park by a rousing version of LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `I Got A Feeling’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Oct2013

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