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The Pearl Jam Concert Experience
'Scientists have studied the universe, and they discovered that it's about 15 billion years old,' says Ed Vedder, lead vocalist for Pearl Jam, 'so by comparison, this song ain't so old.'
The band immediately launch into 'Breath', a song recorded in the earliest days of their career and released only on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's film, Singles. They have only performed it live less than a dozen times in their 12-year career. Yet the song tears the house down, with fans cheering and screaming. Two girls even hug each other in their ecstatic bliss. The fans in attendance at Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne on 20 February, 2003, have experienced something truly unique.
Moments later, guitarist Stone Gossard plays the acoustic tones that make the main riff for 'Footsteps'. A rare live song, 'Footsteps' only ever saw its original release as a b-side track to their massively popular song, 'Jeremy'. Not that the crowd minds; no, they cheer and sing along with aplomb, welcoming this uncommon treasure.
After two more songs, Vedder calls for the house-lights, and guitarist Mike McCready plays the Hendrix-inspired chords to 'Yellow Ledbetter'. The crowd give rapturous applause and cheers. The concert ends with McCready's improvised, unaccompanied solo, fading into deafening cheers of appreciation. The song - McCready's tribute to Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing' - is another b-side. In fact, it's the other b-side to be found on the 'Jeremy' single.
This is, however, just a coincidence, and stands as a testament to Pearl Jam's resolve to provide a unique experience with every show. Indeed, for all but the earliest days of their career, Pearl Jam have never played the same show twice.
'Thoughts Arrive Like Butterflies'
Perhaps the most enduring thing about Pearl Jam is that they live up to their name. While the 'Pearl' portion can only be fulfilled with conjecture, this is a band that certainly does jam. Old favourites 'Even Flow', 'Porch' and 'Rearviewmirror' have their middle sections extended considerably to make way for improvised soloing or unmitigated jamming. Also, several songs - including 'Black', 'Corduroy', 'Wishlist' and 'Immortality' - have their outros lengthened for the same reasons. The results are always different, with each band member playing to suit their current moods and feelings, but never demanding the spotlight.
Adding to the singular nature of their shows is Vedder's constant improvisation. A well-known staple of the Pearl Jam concert is the 'Daughter Tag'. At the end of the huge radio hit, 'Daughter'1, the band jam out the final chords while Vedder plucks additional lyrics out of the air. These usually take the form of popular songs by other artists. Examples include:
As if that weren't enough, often Ed will sing a line or two from other Pearl Jam songs, such as 'WMA' or 'Push Me, Pull Me', or even just improvise on the spot.
To this end, Pearl Jam have carved a reputation for being a great live act. So much so that, in an interview in the December 2002 issue of Guitar World, McCready is quoted as saying, 'I like our band better live than on record.'
Beating the Bootleggers
It appears that Pearl Jam really do like their live sound. In a bold move, the band recorded all of their shows from the European and American legs of their 2000 tour, and released them as live double-CD 'bootlegs'. The basic reason for this was that the band wanted to beat the bootleggers; to ensure that quality recordings of every show were available at a respectable price - generally US$10 per show.
For their 2003 tour, the band upped the ante quite considerably. While the deal was still more or less the same, this time around fans were given the opportunity to pre-order the shows. Consequently, the buyer would be emailed a link that would allow them to download unmastered mp3 files of the show. These files would be made available to the buyers the day after the show. Then, the fully-mastered CD would be sent to the buyer's house less than a week later.
'I'm Going to Say Something That's Typically Me...'
A concert-goer at any given Pearl Jam show can also expect one or two speeches from the often-opinionated Vedder. In the US leg of their 2000 tour, Vedder would urge people to vote, and hint at his opinions on then-presidential candidate George W Bush. He was far more vocal in the Australian leg of the 2003 tour, donning a George W Bush mask and glittery jacket, dancing around the stage like some sort of televangelist. He encouraged the audiences to take part in the anti-war protests that took place on 16th February, 2003, throughout the world and, after the protests, lauded everyone for their attendance.
Vedder also took the time to speak up on behalf of his hero and friend, Pete Townshend of The Who. Weeks earlier, Townshend had been arrested for having child pornography on his computer. Vedder pointed out the irony that Townshend had in fact been accused of the very thing he was seeking to expose, and the media blew the story out of all proportion.
To choose the best example of a typical Ed Vedder speech from a concert would be a ludicrous task, but perhaps it is possible to select one that encapsulates everything the band stands for, both musically and politically. The following is taken from the 6 November, 2000 show in Seattle, Washington, which was the final show of their 2000 tour:
While we have the microphone and we have a platform for the last time in a long time, I'm just gonna say something that really didn't affect the show at all - and mostly thanks to you for having such good energy - but we had a little frustrating period in the last two days dealing with the city, and even though this is a show where all the proceeds - every dollar that you spent - is going to a number of different organizations in the city, a few nationally. I think it's almost $500,000 in two days. I'm guessing, but I think that's it.
I don't know if it's post-WTO3-syndrome, or something, but they're really paranoid in this city these days, and really over-compensating with security. In fact, if every one of you left right now and only the security people were here - and no offence, I'm sure some of you are nice people - but, there would be 270 people in yellow shirts, which is bigger crowds than most small bands get. It's bordering on ridiculous.
I think we feel the need publicly to say that that's usually a cost of maybe $6,000 for security. Tonight because the city was demanding of us to have this show, they were... it's insulting, because of after what we went through in Denmark4 the last thing that we're gonna even open ourselves up to is some kind of unsafe situation. And for them to go overboard on us... And you wanna ask, when will you get some respect in this town? When will music get some respect in this f.....g town?
Let the kids go to teen dance shows, let them go to dance clubs, let them have an outlet. Look at this crowd tonight: they've been well behaved. I've been to a number of other things where people are well behaved. Give youth... give them some responsibility to be able to prove themselves. They handle themselves better than most people at Seahawks games. Believe me.
So the cost of tonight's - I don't know if it was just tonight or if it was over the two nights - but instead of $6,000 it was $25,000 for the extra people in yellow shirts. And that's $25,000 that's not gonna go to one or a few of the groups that needed it. And I just feel like we needed to air that out so we can sleep well tonight and feel like we did a good job. And ask the city for some respect.
Staying on the subject of kids, the band followed up with The Who's 'The Kids Are Alright'. In a rare double, they then played The Who's 'Baba O'Riley', a song that the Pearl Jam fan community has embraced, singing along as if it were a Pearl Jam hit. They closed the show on 'Yellow Ledbetter' and, during McCready's unaccompanied outro, he played an impromptu instrumental of 'Little Wing'.
Maybe Forrest Gump's mama had it slightly wrong:
Life is like a Pearl Jam concert: you never know what yo' gonna git.
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