Most major rock acts go on tour and play the same exact set every night, sometimes even repeating their stage banter verbatim like they’re reading from a script. Pearl Jam have always taken a different path. Their setlist is like the complete Pearl Jam catalog on shuffle where any song can surface at any point. Back in the 1990s, it caused their hardcore fans to feverishly trade bootlegs on cassette tapes and burned CDs, but in 2000 the group began selling pristine recordings of every show. Wading through the hundreds of recordings is a difficult task, especially for newcomers, so we’ve picked out our favorite 15 shows from their entire career. We haven’t factored in shows from the 2018 U.S. tour (yet), but they began airing on Sirius XM’s Pearl Jam radio earlier this month and will be available to download via Nugs by October 8th.
October 22nd, 1990 – Off Ramp Cafe, Seattle
Just two weeks after their first rehearsal, Pearl Jam (then billed as Mookie Blaylock) accepted a gig opening at the tiny Off Ramp Cafe in Seattle as a sort of trial by fire for Vedder, who they had met that month. Luckily, a camcorder captured the entire monumental show, along with a sound check that included songs like “Even Flow,” “Black” and “Once.”
December 31st, 1991 – Cow Palace, Daly City, CA
After touring relentlessly throughout 1991, Pearl Jam wrapped up the year by opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana at Cow Palace near San Francisco. Their feud with Nirvana hadn’t really heated up, so it was with good humor that Pearl Jam played 15 seconds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before “Porch.” “Just remember,” said guitarist Stone Gossard that night, “we played it first.” It was one of the few times the grunge titans shared a bill.
June 25th, 1992 – Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Ten blew up so quickly that this show was moved from a tiny club to a 1,500-seat outdoor theater. Vedder and guitarist Mike McCready opened with an acoustic cover of the Police’s “Driven to Tears” before tearing into a fiery set that included nearly all of Ten, along with “I’ve Got a Feeling” by the Beatles and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” (the latter already a concert staple). The next day, they would play to more than 70,000 fans at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, but the lucky few in Stockholm got the far superior show.
May 13th, 1993 – Slim’s, San Francisco
“So, who’s the one who couldn’t keep a secret?” Vedder asked one song into this surprise secret show at the 900-seat Slim’s – which they booked billing themselves as the “David J. Gunn Band.” After word got out, the PJ faithful descended and wound up being the first people to hear songs from the band’s just-finished Vs. The show ended with a cover of “Sonic Reducer” by punk heroes the Dead Boys, which entered Pearl Jam’s live repertoire in the fall of 1992 and has never left.
April 3rd, 1994 – Fox Theatre, Atlanta
By the end of the Vs. tour, Pearl Jam were playing at absolute peak form. This widely bootlegged live radio broadcast contains nearly all of Vs. and Ten, mixed with snippets of covers like “Angie” by the Rolling Stones and even Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City.” The show came just as news broke that Kurt Cobain was missing after walking out of a rehab facility. “Hope he’s all right,” Vedder says. “Please be all right.”
March 17th, 1995 – Flinders Park
Tennis Centre, Melbourne, Australia
“Fine bunch of mutants we got here,” Vedder told the Australian crowd along with the countless fans listening to a radio feed. “We’re all mutants up here too!” The mutants previewed the No Code tune “Lukin” and brought out Dave Grohl for “Rockin’ in the Free World.” It was Grohl’s first concert appearance after Kurt Cobain’s death.
October 22nd, 2000 – MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas
On the 10-year anniversary of their first concert, Pearl Jam played the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to celebrate. Vedder sang oldies like “Jeremy” and “Black” with renewed enthusiasm. Most remarkably, the group played “Crown of Thorns” by Mother Love Bone, the first time Vedder had ever sung a song by his predecessor Andy Wood.
May 3rd, 2003 – Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State University
On the end of the first leg of their long 2003 tour, Pearl Jam did a 34-song, three-plus-hour set, the longest of their career up to that point. The encore section is as long as the main set, including back-to-back covers of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “Gimme Some Truth” and super-rare takes on “Satan’s Bed” and “Mankind.”
September 20th, 2006 – Piazza Duomo Pistoia, Italy
For whatever reason, Italians really love Pearl Jam. There’s nothing particularly amazing about this set on paper, but the 32-song show – particularly the stretch of “Hail, Hail,” “State of Love and Trust,” “Black,” “Crazy Mary” and “Alive” in the first encore – is PJ at their best.
October 31st, 2009 – The Spectrum, Philadelphia
Before Philadelphia’s storied Spectrum arena was demolished in 2010, Pearl Jam played a four-night farewell bash. The last show – which happened to fall on Halloween, while the third game of the World Series was taking place next door at Citizens Bank Park – found them in especially joyful spirits; they dressed up like Devo for a cover of “Whip It” and dug out super deep cuts “Bugs” and “Sweet Lew” for the very first time.
May 21st, 2010 – Madison Square Garden, New York
Any show that features a mini-acoustic set with a string section is special. Throw in blazing covers of the Who’s “The Real Me” and MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” along with renditions of rarities “Sweet Lew” and “Black, Red, Yellow” and you’ve got a real classic. This MSG epic also featured Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses singing Chris Cornell’s part on “Hunger Strike,” and an audience sing-along on “Better Man.”
September 4th, 2011 – Alpine Valley Music Theatre East Troy, WI
For their 20th anniversary, Pearl Jam chose an amphitheater in the middle of the country where fans from all over could meet up for an amazing night, topped off with a four-song Temple of the Dog mini-set featuring Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell on guest vocals.
July 19th, 2013 – Wrigley Field, Chicago
After being delayed by a massive rainstorm, which hit after just seven songs, the group returned three hours later and treated drenched fans to a curfew-shattering marathon that included, appropriately enough, the live debut of “Lightning Bolt.” Longtime PJ producer Brendan O’Brien made a rare appearance playing organ on “Future Days,” and it all wrapped up at 2 a.m. with “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
April 16th, 2016 – Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, SC
Pearl Jam were one of the few bands to restrain themselves from doing classic-album concerts in the 2010s, and when they finally surrendered, they did it on their terms. The band never announces its full-album shows, and it almost always does them in smaller markets. On this night in Greenville, South Carolina, they opened up with “Corduroy” before shocking the crowd with an incredible performance of Vs.
August 7th, 2016 – Fenway Park, Boston
Pearl Jam weren’t supporting a new album when they hit the road in the summer of 2016, freeing them up to play shows that were wildly unpredictable. This night at Fenway Park featured Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton on a cover of his band’s 1977 song “Draw the Line,” and Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis on “Rockin’ in the Free World.” And even though they had played “Alive” hundreds of times, Vedder sang it with the same passion he did in 1991.