Pearl Jam were just beginning to get noticed nationally when they shot their MTV Unplugged special on March 16th, 1992. Their debut album Ten had been on shelves since the previous August, though they’d only released a lone single in America and the LP was sitting under the likes of Mr. Big and Ugly Kid Joe on the Billboard album chart. But “Alive” was getting a lot of radio play, they’d just wrapped up a now-legendary tour with Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and it was clear they were about to absolutely explode.
The Unplugged special was taped at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, just three days after the conclusion of a grueling European tour. With little prep time, they were forced to rent equipment. “We showed up, and instead of the Gibson Chet Atkins steel-string guitar I had ordered, they had a classical one there,” guitarist Stone Gossard told Guitar World. “It was getting late – like 11 o’clock at night – and where can you rent stuff at that hour? Luckily, we knew some people who were able to score us a couple more guitars, and it turned out fine. I ended up getting a Chet Atkins steel-string – which played great – and a Takamine that felt pretty good. In those kinds of situations, you just have to play with the hand you’re dealt.”
They’d played a few brief acoustic sets by this point, but nothing of this magnitude. Nearly every song from Ten made it into the set, along with a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” “It forces you to play differently,” said guitarist Mike McCready. “You can’t rely on feedback. It forces you to use dynamics, and to look at each song in a different way. Some songs turned out good acoustically, and some just didn’t quite happen. I didn’t think ‘Even Flow’ was any good.” But the group’s performance of “Black” was nothing short of amazing, as can be seen in the video above.
The band didn’t have too much time to reflect since about a little over a week later they were back on the road, playing club gigs with acts like Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine that led directly into Lollapalooza that summer. By that time MTV was playing the “Even Flow” video on what seemed like extremely heavy rotation, at least until “Jeremy” came in August and they somehow found a way to play that one even more. It was a bad time to be a hair metal band, and a very, very good time to be Pearl Jam.