Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary is being celebrated in style thanks largely to the efforts of director Cameron Crowe, whose documentary Pearl Jam Twenty is released this week. He’s also compiled the soundtrack, a double album of live music from the film and some other rarities, so I’ve decided to do a track-by-track review while I listen to it.
1 – Release – The closer to debut album Ten, this performance is from 2006 in Italy, and it works just as well as a suitably emotional and atmospheric opener to the soundtrack (and presumably the film). Eddie Vedder’s vocals are typically soaring and it’s a lovely and welcoming introduction to proceedings.
2 – Alive – And back to the start, with this performance from the fourth gig by Mookie Blaylock (their original name), back in 1990. Not that you’d know it though, because other than the raw sound quality, Alive sounds fully-formed as a song and the band sound as tight as they do 21 years later.
3 – Garden – Recording in Switzerland in 1992, this sees Pearl Jam already inspiring devotion abroad, less than a year after the release of Ten. Again, the sound quality isn’t fantastic, but the crowd participation makes it notable.
4 – Why Go – Always a live favourite for its pounding bassline and it sounds fantastic from this gig in Germany off the same tour, we’re not short of versions of Why Go, but it’s a really good one nonetheless and Pearl Jam’s early tours are under-represented in their live canon.
5 – Black – Hardly a new discovery because it’s the MTV Unplugged performance, but as there’s not been an official release of the audio from the show, it’s still welcome and Vedder’s anguished ‘we belong together’ adlibbing at the end is powerful stuff.
6 – Blood – One of the things I love about Pearl Jam is that you can expect to hear almost any song from their back catalogue when you go to a show and Cameron Crowe captures that here, with only four of the 14 main tracks having been singles. This rocker from Vs is a belter.
7 – Last Exit – That was from New Zealand and Crowe continues to capture the globe-trotting adventures of the band with this one from Taiwan in 1995, again it’s another good performance of a great song.
8 – Not For You – 1995 was of course around the time Pearl Jam were having their issues with Ticketmaster in the USA, so that’s presumably why these tracks are taken from around the world, with this other Vitalogy classic from the Philippines. It’s an appropriate choice too, given that it’s so much about the band’s rejection of the commercialisation of their music at the time.
9 – Do The Evolution – Jumping forward, this track comes from a Monkeywrench Radio broadcast, one of the many ways that the band have used to connect with their fans and while it doesn’t sound massively different to the studio version, it’s a perfect snapshot of where the band were at the time.
10 – Thumbing My Way – Riot Act is one of my least favourite Pearl Jam albums, but there’s no doubting that this is a lovely tune and this low-key recording at a small club in their hometown fits it perfectly. You can certainly see the story that Crowe is telling from his choice of songs and particular performances.
11 – Crown Of Thorns – You can’t talk about Pearl Jam’s anniversary without mentioning Mother Love Bone, the band that preceded them, and they don’t forget either, as shown by this performance from 2000 of MLB’s signature tune Crown Of Thorns, starting with a brief instrumental intro of Chloe Dancer (the combined version was of course used by Crowe in Singles). It’s a breathtaking performance of a wonderful tune.
12 – Let Me Sleep (Christmas Time) – This is an interesting one, a rare live recording of the first Pearl Jam Christmas single, seemingly done on the steps of the beautiful Arena di Verona, with just Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready. Sounds like it will be a lovely part of the film, certainly.
13 – Walk With Me – A version of Neil Young’s song from his fantastic Le Noise album, this was clearly chosen for how well the lyrics fit into the mindset of Pearl Jam and their relationship with their fans (“I feel your love, I feel your strong love, I feel the patience Of unconditional love, I feel the strength, I feel your faith in me, I’ll never let you down.”) It’s a sentiment every band would say fit their fanbase, but with this band it does seem to be more real.
14 – Just Breathe – The first disc (and possibly the film) finishes with one of the most lovely songs in Pearl Jam’s catalogue and the perfect summary of where they are in their career, which at the moment is a pretty good place. It’s taken from a Saturday Night Live performance and sounds wonderful.
1 – Say Hello 2 Heaven (Demo) – The second disc is mostly rarities-based and starts with a non-Pearl Jam track, although Temple Of The Dog were the current line-up with Chris Cornell on vocals instead of Eddie Vedder, so it’s pretty much the same thing. The quality of the demo is pretty rough, but it’s interesting enough.
2 – Times Of Trouble (Demo) – Again, the quality is not great, but this demo sees the band working on TOTD track Times Of Trouble, which turned into Pearl Jam b-side Footsteps, so it’s good to hear the instrumental blurring the lines between the two of them, and that kind of process seems to be what Crowe is exploring here.
3 – Acoustic #1 (Demo) – It’s labouring the point, but again this is clearly demo-quality and even the song itself is only half-formed, but it’s interesting listening as the band and Vedder explore their softer side while still in their early days.
4 – It Ain’t Like That (Demo) – In complete contrast, this 1990 snippet of a cover of the Alice In Chains song makes Pearl Jam sound like Bleach-era Nirvana for their riffage. It’s fun, but mostly as a glimpse of the direction they COULD have gone in.
5 – Need To Know (Demo) – As I said earlier, Crowe’s fascination with the process of making a Pearl Jam song comes through here with a demo recorded by Matt Cameron that turned into The Fixer a couple of years later. It’s a good tune, but there’s a reason he doesn’t get to sing too often…
6 – Be Like Wind – An instrumental score piece from one of rock’s most underrated guitarists, Be Like Wind is a really nice, understated affair that makes you want to hear more of this from him.
7 – Given To Fly – And here’s more from him, an instrumental acoustic version of the great Given To Fly and while it takes a little while to take shape, it’s again a real testament to his talent.
8 – Nothing As It Seems (Demo) – Another demo, this time featuring Jeff Ament planning out the excellent single Nothing As It Seems. As with Matt’s demo, it’s intriguing to hear, but does make you yearn for Vedder’s vocals.
9 – Nothing As It Seems – Luckily, Crowe obliges by following it up with a live version from 2001, and after the occasionally claustrophobic nature of the roughly-produced demos, it’s great to hear the band come to life in full flow.
10 – Indifference – One of my favourite Pearl Jam tracks, this live version from Italy in 2006 captures its subtle majesty really well.
11 – Of The Girl – I do really like this song too, not least because they kicked off with it at my first PJ gig, but while this instrumental version helps bring out some of the nuances, it does kind of outstay its welcome a bit.
12 – Faithfull – So, again, it’s a bit of a relief to have it followed by another live track, a spirited soundcheck runthrough of one of Yield’s best tunes.
13 – Bu$hleager – Here’s a really interesting one, far from one of my favourites, but very much of its time. Bu$hleager was the most overtly political of their songs from a time when anti-Bush polemic became a real part of their act, even dividing their fanbase, most notably at this show, though you don’t really hear that here.
14 – Better Man – That was interesting because Crowe seems to be making a big deal of Pearl Jam’s relationship with their fans and that was definitely a strained time. This song from last year shows them working in perfect harmony, with the Madison Square Garden crowd bellowing along to the words and the band responding with a hugely energetic performance.
15 – Rearviewmirror – The second disc comes to an end with another great live track and one of their signature tunes. Rearviewmirror gets stretched out to just over seven minutes (as it did when I saw them on the same tour) and the jamming before the explosion of pace and energy at the end works so well. Great song by a great band from a consistently entertaining and thought-provoking collection. Bring on the film.