Pearl Jam helpfully picks the bootlegs for you
“Oh, good,” my wife exclaimed when the three-show, seven-disc Live at the Gorge box set arrived at the house last week. “About time we got some live Pearl Jam CDs in here.”
My wife exclaimed these things because: 1) She is hilarious, 2) She would drop me for Eddie Vedder without so much as a pause to drop a wad of paper with a forwarding address on it, and 3) Live Pearl Jam is big in our house. Pearl Jam, of course, has released nearly all of its last 35,295 shows in CD form, in a fairly ingenious initiative started in the early part of the decade by which to endear themselves even more to their spirited, collector-heavy base—which spends a good and often troubling amount of time documenting setlists and play counts and tags and covers—as well as cheese off bootleggers who were making mints off of Pearl Jam’s rising, if a little head-scratching, status as “the next Grateful Dead”, a title ostensibly given them because both bands, I don’t know, play different setlists sometimes?
As such, when something like the spiffy Live at the Gorge comes down the boulevard, one has to wonder: Why? What makes these shows special? Why does this sprawling (and chronologically interrupted) collection of three shows from 2005-06 get the art-directed box set treatment, while the others are relegated to grocery bag-colored slipcases?
All good questions. And in traditional Pearl Jam fashion, the answer seems to be: It seemed like something to do. And the fans would probably like it.
Whatever… it works: there’s a lot to appreciate on this fat monolith. Culled from three shows near Seattle (September 5, 2005 and July 22-23, 2006) that bookend the release of Pearl Jam’s self-titled eighth record last spring, Gorge‘s theme is nothing more than the band’s enthusiasm for playing in front of as close as they got to a hometown crowd on that tour. And as befitting a band that needs little excuse to turn a show into a die-hard-pleasing novelty fiesta, they rise to the occasion: this is a set full of weirdness, rarities, alternate versions, long-lost nuggets and, by God, “Dirty Frank”, something of a Holy Grail for the PJ BitTorrent set, a cannibal-themed funk-workout B-side played here for the first time since 1948.
If you choose to take the shows in order, you’ll find that things seem different right away: as they did during a multi-night stand in Massachusetts some years back that found them playing every song in their catalog, the 2005 show opens with a nine-song ballad/partly acoustic set that opens with a simmering cover of the Ramones (“I Believe in Miracles”) and closes with “Hard to Imagine”, a previously long-lost B-side that’s the first of many golden ticket for the longtime fans Vedder regularly calls out in his stage patter.
Setlist watchers could rightfully go a little nuts with the subsequent rock set, too: “Given to Fly” opens! “Alone!” “Sad!” A cover of “I Won’t Back Down!” The decreasingly rare Mother Love Bone track “Crown of Thorns!” What’s telling about this show—and the others—is how tuned in the band seems to be to its own catalog: occasional “Insignificance” aside, these are guys who seems to know where the clunkers are, and don’t spend a lot of onstage time defending them.
The first show is the longest and wackiest, but the 2006 gigs benefit from a tightening, as well as their inclusion on the new tracks from Pearl Jam, which gives the shows a timely immediacy. But the band trickles in the new stuff. July 22 is the most accessible of the shows, a hits-comp parade that includes “Corduroy”, “Small Town”, “Even Flow”, “Daughter”, “Black”, “Alive”, “Porch”, “Last Kiss” and a full closing salvo of “Baba O’Riley”, “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Yellow Ledbetter” all in place (in another eyebrow-raising novelty, the set was written by a friend of guitarist Mike McCready’s from the CCFA, a group dedicated to helping sufferers of Crohn’s disease). That said, tracks like “World Wide Suicide” and “Life Wasted” snuggle right into the rock portion of the setlist, even if newer stuff like “Inside Job” and “Unemployable” seem to have trouble getting a foothold.
If July 22 is a hits show, July 23 digs back into the old country; “Garden” sails in out of the clear blue sky, as does the Vs. semi-rarity “Rats”, one of Vedder’s least subtle human-element indictments. Disc 1 even ends with a one-two punch from Ten: “Jeremy,” which no longer has a chorus, and the always surprising “Why Go”. “Better Man,” especially, benefits from the “Save It for Later” tag, which adds a sympathetic male perspective (“I know I fucked up,” Vedder croons) to what’s traditionally a cut-and-dried indictment of an abusive relationship, no matter how many people make out to it on the lawn.
It goes without saying that the band is doing the fired-up-hometown thing. Matt Cameron never goes a measure without a dexterous, crashing fill of some kind. He seems to have single-handedly made “Even Flow” double-timed. Mike McCready sounds as though fueled by kerosene. Vedder’s unusually chatty (at one point assuring the crowd that he’s wearing shorts because it’s “fucking hot,” not in some sort of push to bring back grunge fashion). A rare thing that has equal appeal to both sides of the fanship spectrum, Gorge is made both for the setlist hounds and those who would like to catch up with live Pearl Jam, but want someone else to do the deciding.