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Live on Two Legs: The Live Pearl Jam Experience

"If it screams for truth rather than help, if it commits itself with a courage it can't be sure it really has, if it stands up and admits that something is wrong but doesn't insist on blood, then it's rock and roll."
--Pete Townshend, 1977
The 1998 North American tour was memorable for a lot of reasons, successful in many, many ways. Primarly, though, it firmly established the inescapable fact that, in 1998, Pearl Jam are the *only* ones doing what they do. They are truly the only band of this day and age who are upholding the grand tradition of rock and roll established in the 60's. I'm talking about the notion of Rock not as amusement, or as Entertainment, but as as something crucial, something vital: as art, as a statement, as escape, as defiance, as rebellion, as redemption. It used to fucking MATTER.

A tall order? Sure. But it was once the standard definition against which all bands were measured, something that was lost (or rather, ignored) when rock became big business in the 80's. And while PJ were always heading in that direction, were always true to that spirit, they were still struggling, still had a long way to go. That is, until 1998. Yield was the dawning of a new era; it was Pearl Jam passing out of their collective adolescence as a band and making a strong, cohesive statement about who they are, who they want to be, and where they're headed.

So I guess it's no wonder that the 1998 tour fell out as it did. In the months preceding the tour, while we were all driven by the desire for the live Pearl Jam experience, I think it's safe to say a large part of that was "go and see them NOW because they may never do this again!" Last call. 95 and 96 were hardly satisfactory touring experiences; less than a dozen dates in either year. 1995 was plagued with problems, start-and-stop, cancellations and re-schedules. In 96, we got 12 dates, geographically scattered (much like 95) and then off to Europe. As a result, PJ effectively stopped being a live act. There was no chance to get a real feel for the live experience, who the band were now, what they had to say now; even for themselves as a band, they barely got into a roll before it was time to stop. Artistically I can't imagine that that was particularly satisfying.

So it's 1998, and we're all running out there to get our fill of whatever they had to offer, good, bad, or indifferent. I guess I want to say that our expectations weren't very high - that's not true, it's Pearl Jam, of course we have high expectations - but just that we as fans had gotten into the mindset that ANY Pearl Jam live was better than no Pearl Jam live. We felt as though we couldn't hold the band to any higher of standard of quality, felt that it was disloyal to criticize the choice of setlists, or otherwise question or even fucking discuss if the band were really rising to the challenge. Don't get me wrong: I am NOT saying that they weren't, or we shouldn't be grateful; but grateful does not mean that we should be sheep, either, and just blindly follow them wherever they go without questioning. Part of the grand standard of rock that I am basing this whole premise of Pearl Jam live on also counts on the audience being active, the audience being the second half of the covenant, that the picture is not complete without the audience, and that doesn't just mean being there and taking it in, that means being an active part of the process.

That's too much work for some people. And who's to say they're wrong? Life is hard, and people want to be entertained, want some distraction from real life. They just want to just go to a concert and hear their favorite song, you know, the one the radio plays all the time, so they can yell "YEAAAAAHHHHH!" really loud. (Especially if you're standing next to them holding a tape recorder.... =))

But I would offer that Pearl Jam is the wrong band for this. That you're not going to really get anything out of the show unless you've got your own personal investment in it, unless you are right there with them every single second. It's a challenge, it's a statement, it's a declaration. While PJ's always possessed the essence of these qualities live, this time around, there was more: there was fun, there was exuberance, there was exaltation. Find me a show from any other tour where they all smiled so damn much onstage, where they were willing to laugh at themselves. They loosened up, they really and truly started to have fun with it. In the early days, it seemed like being onstage was a source of wonder and bemusement to the guys: oh my god, all these people have PAID MONEY to see US! We need to make every second count! Well, they still make every second count, but Ed can do the shimmy to "Do The Evolution" and not detract from the gravity of the experience one tiny bit. (Hell, I'd argue that Eddie's DTE dance adds to the experience!! =))

Finally, the band as individuals, and as a collective unit, pushed themselves, challenged themselves, and progressed as musicians in a phenomenal way. There's an old quote that said that the Stones' demo tapes were better than most bands' finished albums; well, Pearl Jam on an off night (and they do have them; McCready's even quoted as saying "We really sucked" when talking about MSG I, for example) is still miles above ANY of their contemporaries on a good night. But on the best nights - Chicago, LA, Great Woods, MSG II, to name just a few - they completely and absolutely transcended the accepted definition of what a rock and roll concert in 1998 has come to mean. We've come to accept mediocrity, complacency and under-achievement as norms; in 1998, Pearl Jam proved to everyone that "there's much more than this..." in their own inimitable way.

the live album

When the plans for a live album were announced, I, probably like many of you, had my own wishlist of songs I wanted to hear. Then, when the tracklisting was announced, I have to confess to a certain level of disappointment; this was not what I'd envisioned, this is not what I was wanting.

That is, of course, until I heard it.

Now it all makes sense, the tracklisting makes sense, the whole concept makes sense, the reason there are no dates and venues listed makes sense. The band were trying to bottle the live Pearl Jam experience, something that they knew couldn't truly be captured, but this is a pretty damn good try. Speaking as someone who saw multiple shows this tour, this record was every show I was at or any show I was at. It is purposely neutral, purposely generic, purposely not specific. That's why there's no "Baba O'Riley" from Chicago, no "Breath" from MSG, no "Betterman" with a "Save It For Later" tag - that would have identified the album too closely with one particular show, which I would argue is what they didn't want to do. Yes, "Daughter" is there, and "Daughter" means the accompanying tags which absolutely do identify it; but that's what "Daughter" always means, there's no "Daughter" without tags, so it's once again something we can all identify with.

While PJ are truly a fan-centric band, this record is not necessarily meant for the faithfull; this being the first full tour where taping was Officially Allowed, Pearl Jam know perfectly well that we're all out there trading tapes frantically. So, for the diehards, L2L is meant to augment our collections; there's no way in hell Pearl Jam could have released the absolutely definitive live record. We as fans couldn't agree on it, and I'd suggest that they as a band probably couldn't agree what that would mean.

But for the rest of the fans out there, old and new, L2L is directed at them. Maybe they finally got to see PJ for the first time; maybe they saw one show in their hometown. That doesn't mean that they're any less fans than those of us who saw multiple shows, but for them, one crystal-clear live recording to have as a memory of this tour is just the greatest thing. If you can let go of your preconceptions and your expectations and your fervent wishes for 71 minutes, just close your eyes and put on L2L. See if it doesn't take you back there, the roar of the crowd, the electricity in the air that can only belong to a Pearl Jam show. And that, after all, is the goal of any live record.

L2L is a yearbook of sorts, a scrapbook of the summer, a summary of what for most of us was the most incredible year. It may not be the best live album ever released, but even with all the tapes and videos and CD-R's of the summer, I still find myself reaching for it more often than I'd thought.

© 1998 Caryn Rose

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