[3 March 2011]
Sound Affects Editor
If there’s any band that doesn’t suffer from a lack of widely-available live recordings, it’s Pearl Jam. Having taken a first step into the live album field with the conventional single-disc release Live on Two Legs in 1998, starting in 2000, the grunge quartet has gone out of its way to provide full-length “official bootleg” recordings of virtually all its concerts, either as a free bonus for buying a ticket or as select commercial releases. It’s a measure of how much the group values live performance and its fans that it so willing offers up its shows as permanent mementos for the faithful. And while you might think you don’t need to hear endless live renditions of “Even Flow” or “Jeremy”, Pearl Jam are masters of the concert environment, always willing to tweak or expand upon old chestnuts or even dredge up obscure fan-favorites and oddball covers in order to make every show unique and engaging.
Yet unless you are a ravenously hardcore Pearl Jam fan who’s compelled to consume every single official bootleg double-CD set and concert home video, it can be daunting trying to explore the band’s gigantic live release catalog, particularly if you just want a highlights reel. Luckily, 13 years after its first concert compilation, Pearl Jam has issued Live on Ten Legs, a conscious follow-up to the now-comparatively modest 1998 release that culls performances from tours between 2003 and 2010. As the name implies, the 18-track album is also intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s debut LP Ten. As such, this scaled-down entry into the Seattle, Washington, group’s bottomless live discography nevertheless manages to feel monumental, as if one of the most humble bands in rock history is trying to subtly tell everyone that yes, two decades on, it rocks better than most everyone else going, thank you very much.
Bassist Jeff Ament mentioned recently that the band strove to front-load Live on Ten Legs with some “good energy”. He isn’t kidding: Pearl Jam comes roaring out of the gate here and only begins to relent a shade for the ghostly opening chords of “I Am Mine” six tracks in (even then, the tune from the 2002 album Riot Act ultimately molts into another classicist Pearl Jam anthem, topped with a soul-stirring chorus and an ecstatic outro solo by lead guitarist Mike McCready). Here we find that the last big grunge band standing has cast itself as something akin to its heroes the Who by way of punk, as wave after wave of taut, fist-pumping chordal rockers like “World Wide Suicide”, “Got Some”, and cover of punk hero Joe Strummer’s solo cut “Arms Aloft” are rolled out, demonstrating that Pearl Jam can hit hard in a direct, almost crude fashion that nonetheless works wonders in an arena environment. It’s almost a disservice to the band that so much emphasis is placed on such a straightforward attack, as ballads get short shrift and the band’s penchant for improvisational sections is largely pushed to the second half of the album, where terrific renditions of ‘90s classics “Porch”, “Alive”, and “Yellow Ledbetter” reside.
By and large Live on Ten Legs lives up to its unstated thesis of a sort of “greatest live hits”. All but two of the performances are clear winners. After Pearl Jam struggled to cope with the “voices of a generation” mantle unwillingly hoisted onto it for so long, Live on Ten Legs displays a group that is pretty darn happy about where it is now, content to feed off the crowd and enjoy the art of live performance for its own sake. It’s a long way from the scowling band of yore whose formerly-tortured frontman once popped out of a bush to tell some bewildered fans to stop singing “Black”. Singer Eddie Vedder lacks the hair-raising visceral qualities of the past on the performances compiled here, but is still a talent to behold, sustaining notes for effect (check out the way he elongates the word “listen” in the last chorus to “State of Love and Trust”), using his voice as a percussive instrument, and throwing in fun little phrasings. Nothing demonstrates Pearl Jam’s contented state of mind better than the cover of the post-punk media-image rant “Public Image”, where the band is having a jolly good time rocking along as Vedder indulges in a goofy John Lydon impersonation. In contrast, the album’s least successful renditions—“Animal” and “Spin the Black Circle”—are the ones that most demand cathartic vitriol. In the case of “Spin the Black Circle”, Vedder and Co. sound positively relaxed on the thrashing hardcore-inspired ode to vinyl records, robbing the song of the frenzied urgency it requires.
With such emphasis on good vibes and straightforward rockers, it’s pleasing whenever an opportunity to hear Pearl Jam explore the nooks and crannies presents itself. Although “Animal” lacks the punch of the studio version, in this performance, it’s easier to hear the instrumental interplay between Ament, McCready, and guitarist Stone Gossard, and how all three complement each other perfectly during the wordless passages. The extended interlude sections of “Rearviewmirror” and “Porch” are the most visible representatives of the long jams found more abundantly in full-length PJ gigs. In particular, “Rearviewmirror” reveals how confident and comfortable the axemen are in their synergistic roles: Ament sticks to punky eight notes, Gossard plays round with variations on a three-note idea, and McCready weaves psychedelic melodies. Complete changes in tone are also welcome: the bluesy sadness of “Nothing As It Seems” darkens the vibe of the set, while the subdued “Just Breathe” relies on folky acoustic finger-picking and sparse synthesized string in the background before building up to swelling, heart-rending peaks.
Any shortcoming that can be attributed to Live on Ten Legs are primarily due to the fact that by design, it’s not a proper Pearl Jam concert. Such a thing would be longer, for starters, but it would also put more faith in the listener, spreading out the rockers and offering up a more diverse selection of songs from the band’s songbook instead of relying so heavily on material from Ten and the group’s most recent album, Backspacer. As a summation of the Pearl Jam live experience, is succeeds only just so, largely by being a solid example of the band’s superb performance capabilities. Yet the album could use more of the freewheeling, naturalistic energy that results from a proper PJ gig setlist. Live on Ten Legs is a good place to start for those who’ve only heard of the band’s live reputation, but if you want the real deal, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket.