Pearl Jam's late-spring 2000 tour is remembered for the mosh-pit tragedy that claimed the lives of nine fans in Denmark. But up until then, the tour had been a musical triumph, a nightly celebration of the deep bond between this band and its audience. The proof is in the band's latest project, the release of twenty-five separate double-disc CDs documenting every show on the tour before the calamitous Denmark date.
No rock band has ever flooded the market with twenty-five unedited, simultaneously released concert recordings. Pearl Jam's core foursome — Eddie Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and bassist Jeff Ament — make for a volatile mix that can soar or stumble over the course of a night. But the band's authority and the consistency of these performances are astonishing. Much credit is due hard-hitting drummer Matt Cameron, formerly of Soundgarden, whose boundless energy and drive temper the band's more ponderous tendencies.
The band's unfashionable roots in metal and Seventies arena rock are precisely what make its music so well suited to its present stadium setting. Pearl Jam overhaul their set list for each show, treating this arena tour like a month-long club engagement. Songs come from all corners of their repertoire, supplemented with covers of the Who, Eddie Holland, the La's, Arthur Alexander, Split Enz and Neil Young. No two shows are the same, and the band digs especially deep during multinight stands in London and Katowice, Poland — if you're looking to buy just a couple of discs, here's the place to start. Early touchstones like "Jeremy" make only occasional appearances; these songs are now less about their original anger and more a celebration of the enduring audience relationship they've created. The sets tend to favor the recent Yield and Binaural albums, and while there's plenty of attitude in songs like "Grievance" and "Do the Evolution," the elegiac "Light Years" and Vedder's intimate "Wishlist" connect on different but no less powerful levels.
The paying customers play full partner in any Pearl Jam show, and in Lisbon and the Czech Republic they might actually outperform the band. During their nightly sing-alongs, the largely non-English-speaking audiences act as a human teleprompter when Vedder loses his place — he sometimes stops just to listen to their word-perfect delivery. Vedder answers their devotion with obvious affection and more humor than his dour-puss reputation would suggest. "There's another band with a singer called Ed," he announced during a Dutch festival with Live, "but I've been told I give better Ed."
Vedder's concern for the well-being of those down front is continually expressed. In light of what we know awaits on the tour's twenty-sixth date, each of his requests for them to be careful and look after one another cuts a little deeper. But make no mistake: These twenty-five concert recordings tell us that Pearl Jam are still among the very best we've got, and getting better.