It’s a bit surprising that the most important track on Pearl Jam Twenty, the soundtrack to the accompanying film documenting Pearl Jam’s 20 years as a band, is not even a Pearl Jam original.
“Walk with Me”, from Neil Young’s outstanding 2010 full-length Le Noise, contains poignant and telling lines, which Pearl Jam augmented onstage with guts and panache at Young’s Bridge School Benefit in October of 2010: “I feel a strength / I feel your faith in me / I’ll never let you down no matter what you do / If you just walk with me and let me walk with you / I’m on a journey / I don’t want to walk alone.”
That night, exactly 20 years and one day after Pearl Jam played its first gig together, those lines encapsulated what Pearl Jam stands for as a band. They have continued to exist for 20 years not because of fortune, fame, or even hit records (see 2002’s plodding Riot Act), but for a reason much more elemental altogether: their fans. And as listeners hear Eddie Vedder singing those lines to the northern California crowd, it’s easy to imagine him saying those words to every single person who’s ever counted himself as a Pearl Jam fan. In short, Pearl Jam owes a lot to their fans. Which is why it’s fitting that the soundtrack to PJ20 was chosen not by the band or their record label, but by director Cameron Crowe, who has been a Pearl Jam fan since its inception. There is an element of faith when it comes to exchanges between the band and its fans, and PJ20 provides as prime an example as one will ever hear. The band trusted Crowe to choose the tracks for the soundtrack, and Crowe came through in spades. What you hear on PJ20 are the highs, the lows, and the kind of honesty which has become a Pearl Jam trademark.
Spread over two discs (and eventually, two vinyl LPs), the first disc features tracks taken directly from the film, while the second is a collection of rarities and demos. Some tracks recognizable by even the most casual Pearl Jam fan are represented, but even then, Crowe went to great lengths to ensure these tracks stand out. “Alive” is taken from a 1990 gig, only PJ’s fourth as a band. Yet it still contains all the raw, visceral energy which it does today. The band’s performance of “Black” is a stirring, emotionally-laden six-minute take from their 1992 MTV Unplugged session that features Vedder nearly crying out the words “We belong together” to end the track. “Do the Evolution” was taken from the band’s 1998 Monkeywrench Radio broadcast, which effectively marked a turning point for the band as far as accessibility after a largely difficult run during the mid-‘90s. And “Betterman” features the aforementioned fans in as tangible a manner as possible: The Madison Square Garden crowd sings the entire first verse and chorus, drowning out Vedder until he has no choice but to relent and let their voices fill the cavernous room. There is a touching call and response between Vedder and the crowd; for 20 years, Pearl Jam fans like Crowe have heard the band with a sense of pride and passion. That passion has grown strong enough that now Pearl Jam hears it too.
And as anyone who’s attended a Pearl Jam gig can attest, there is more to the band than the tracks which commercial radio stuffed down listeners throats in the ‘90s. PJ20 makes great efforts to expose the fringes of the band’s catalogue. “Be Like Wind”, the soft rolling Mike McCready-penned gem takes a backseat only to his solo, acoustic and instrumental performance of “Given to Fly”. Arguably the band’s most rousing song, Crowe ensured that equally rousing roots would not go unheard.
Other members of Pearl Jam get their due as well. “Need to Know”, written by Matt Cameron, shows the early roots of “The Fixer” from 2009’s Backspacer. There is also a murky demo of “Nothing As It Seems”, a Jeff Ament number, which is heard in contrast to the full band giving the song even more depth at a hometown show from 2001.
Crowe did well to expose the evolution of these songs. For as much as Pearl Jam fans have faith in their band, PJ20 displays how much faith the members of Pearl Jam have in each other. As evidenced, when a song is brought to proverbial table, it can be taken in any number of directions. PJ20 is proof of how vital trust is to keeping a band together for a long time.
“Let Me Sleep”, which was once the band’s first Christmas single for fan club members in 1991, is heard played by Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder on the steps of the Arena di Verona in 2006. It’s a touching look back. Still, a certain weight is added to the charming lullaby when McCready comments afterwards how it’s been 15 years since they last played the song. Truly, this varied look at Pearl Jam’s career and catalogue has been a long time coming.
PJ20 also documents the moments when the relationship between Pearl Jam and its fans was put in jeopardy. “Bushleaguer”, the band’s rant (in song form) against then-President George W. Bush was received harshly by fans at a 2003 concert in Buffalo. Fans booed the bandn—- when was the last time THAT happened?—and there was a certain risk of alienating fans who subscribed to a different political thought. But Crowe refuses to sweep these problems under the rug. Like all great relationships, this one had its problems. By exposing them, PJ20 allows fans to rejoice at making it through certain “dark times”.
While this reviewer has not seen the film yet, the soundtrack alone proves what Pearl Jam has always stood for: namely, that when the music is powerful enough, it can speak for itself. PJ20, the film, seeks to explore the numerous angles and relationships which have affected Pearl Jam’s story. The accompanying soundtrack may simply serve as another piece of the puzzle for Pearl Jam completists, but that’s a shame. What’s documented on PJ20 the soundtrack is indeed a piece of a puzzle which is often lost in a world where bands come and go. To be good as a band, you must remain good to your fans. It has undoubtedly been a long journey for both band and fan in this case, but PJ20 proves why both began the journey in the first place.