Photo by David Brendan Hall
Across the past three decades, Pearl Jam have cultivated a reputation for being one of the most incredible live acts of all time. From the very first time they performed in front of a live, paying audience at the Off Ramp in Seattle on October 22, 1990, right up to today, they have set a bar of excellence that few are able to surpass. Over time, the band’s shows have morphed from tight, high-energy, devil-may-care affairs to surprise-filled marathons where anything can, and usually does, happen. A ticket to see Pearl Jam is a near guarantee that you’re about to witness something truly extraordinary.
From the very beginning, it was apparent that the band had a visible, natural chemistry and rapport onstage. They each adopted loosely defined personas for themselves that they still wear today. Out front you have Eddie Vedder, the crooning, wild, and wine-swigging Dionysus crafting the setlists and operating as the master of ceremonies and chief focal point. Next to him is Mike McCready, the incendiary guitar hero, ripping licks and burning solos. Then there’s the steady bedrock of Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and a variety of drummers keeping things moving underneath.
As one of the earliest proponents of the official bootleg release format, the marketplace is literally flooded with recordings of live shows from throughout Pearl Jam’s career. Having played thousands of times together, it’s a bit difficult for the regular consumer, or even PJ super-fan, to figure out where to begin when it comes to wading through all of that material, so we’ve compiled a list of the 10 greatest Pearl Jam concerts of all time.
Did your favorite Pearl Jam show make our list? Let us know in the comments below.
10. Orpheum Theater – April 12th, 1994
Pearl Jam pride themselves on being a band of, by, and for the people. Yes, they are rock stars, but no, that doesn’t mean that they carry themselves as though they are above everyone else. In that spirit, for the second to last show of their Vs. tour in 1994 at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, the band let their road crew completely dictate their setlist. Needless to say, the roadies chose wisely, and the concert that night was jam-packed with deep cuts like “Alone” and “Dirty Frank”, as-yet-unreleased songs from Vitalogy like “Immortality” and “Not for You”, and cool covers like Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up” and Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”, which they performed with Mudhoney’s Mark Arm.
09. Key Arena – November 6th, 2000
For the final show of their massive, three-leg worldwide tour in 2000, Pearl Jam decided to truly go home and ended things with a two performances inside Key Arena in Seattle. It’s the only concert from that run where the band played the song “Alive” and was one of only 18 bootlegs that they tagged with a special “Ape/Man” logo designating it as a truly special performance. The inclusion of the track “Little Wing” by another famous Seattle rock music institution, Jimi Hendrix, in the set was an especially nice and poignant touch. Hat’s off to McCready for an exquisite solo.
08. Madison Square Garden – September 11th, 1998
New York City: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Pearl Jam played two nights back-to-back on its Yield tour in 1998, but it was the second performance on September 11th that is the most notable. That entire run was quite spectacular, but for some reason the fans in the front row made it their mission during the band’s foray into the Big Apple to get Pearl Jam to perform the Singles film soundtrack song “Breath”, which they hadn’t done in four years. They all held up signs emblazoned with the word “Breath” on them until, finally, Vedder acknowledged their presence. “This is the third night in a row, right?” he asked the people up front. “What, is this some kind of organized religion or something? You know, we come up here as a collective band, and we give and give and give, and you just want more? Do you think you deserve it? Well, I think you do. Fuck you, we’re gonna play it!” Needless to say, the crowd lost its collective mind.
07. Tweeter Center – July 11th, 2003
This gig is remarkable mostly for the band’s decision to perform a special acoustic set even before the show openers Sleater-Kinney took the stage. The main set was predictably fantastic, but the Massachusetts fans received a huge treat when the band gave them a especially delicious pre-pre-concert amuse bouche comprised of rarely performed gems like “All Those Yesterdays”, “All Or None”, and “Footsteps” to go along with badass covers of The Ramones’ “I Believe in Miracles”, “Know Your Rights” by the Clash, and “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival later in the evening.
06. Alpine Valley Music Theater – September 4th, 2011
In 2011, Pearl Jam decided to pause, take a look around, and consider where they’ve been and how they got there. They aligned with rock writer/director Cameron Crowe to produce the band documentary PJ20 and set up a two-day festival in Wisconsin to commemorate their two decades together as a band. The phrase “career-spanning” gets thrown out a lot when talking about concerts put on by bands that have been around for more than a few records, but there’s truly no better way to describe the collection of songs that the band performed that night. The real kicker came in the second encore when Chris Cornell sauntered out to perform a four-song Temple of the Dog reunion. “Hunger Strike” still kills.