So Mama didn’t raise no Math major. Tonight is actually my 14th Pearl Jam show, not my 13th. Don’t know how I miscounted, despite multiple checks, but oh well. I thought I’d wrap up “13 Days of Pearl Jam” anyway by going back to the beginning: My first show.
It’s a little weird to think back to the mid-1990s and recall for most of that decade I thought I’d never, ever see Pearl Jam in concert. As part of their battle against Ticketmaster, the band for some time eschewed venues partnered with that company, which meant they were playing less shows in out-of-the-way places that were usually smaller—making tickets nearly impossible to get. As an example, for a couple shows at D.C.'s Constitution Hall in 1994, all tickets were distributed via lottery.
By 1998 and the release of “Yield,” Pearl Jam had lost the fight. It was too much hassle, there weren’t enough venues, they certainly weren’t making nearly the money they should (they sold out Soldier freaking Field in 1995), and the majority of their fans simply couldn’t see them play. As it was, getting tickets to the band’s first full-fledged mega tour still wasn’t easy. Camden (across the river from Philly) was my best shot, as it was the closest venue to my suburban D.C. home before I had to go back to college. Calling on the phone (remember those days?), the first show sold out quickly and the band added a second show, so I scooped lawn seats. I. Was. Going. To. See. Pearl Jam.
Thanks to the dedicated PJ taping and trading community, I’m listening to a bootleg of this show right now, otherwise by some of the finer details would have faded by now. What I remember more than anything is the general disbelief in actually, finally getting to see the band—it's a sensation that's never worn off, even to this very day.
We grabbed a spot on the lower third of the lawn, slightly to Mike’s side, but the visuals are pretty much a wash after the five single candle lights to start the show. Opening with “Long Road” was just about the perfect song for me, since it had been as much to finally see this band. The first section of the show—looking back now with experience—was basically perfect, capping a brilliant seven-song run with an epic version of “Given to Fly.” “Lukin” into “Wishlist,” though, has got to be one of the worst transitions this band has ever made; in subsequent years they’ve done a better job with “Lukin” by employing it essentially as a pre-tag to another harder song (“Not for You,” for example).
The back half of the main set was packed with great songs, too. “Not for You” was particularly ferocious. The only odd spot is “Nothingman,” but the band’s always had trouble finding good spots for their softer songs; I like one of the recent trends of clumping them together in the first encore. But, wow, just look at the five-song run to close the set—you can’t ask for much better selection or pacing than that, even if Eddie did flub the lyrics to “Do the Evolution” (a recurring trend all night—perhaps he was a bit inebriated?). Interesting placement of “Alive,” too, as just, you know, another song buried in the back half, instead of its prime positioning in latter concerts. I like the current slot better.
The first encore was spectacular, once we got through the sludge of “Dissident” (why oh why?). “Even Flow” was still a respectable five minutes long back then, and that led to one of the best versions of “Better Man” I’ve ever heard, in person or otherwise. The extended “Save It for Later” tag (an English Beat cover) was almost like its own entire song and sets the standard for one of my favorite PJ moments in any concert. That led into what remains one of only four live versions of “Push Me, Pull Me” ever played. It was a total treat, even if Eddie once again lost the lyrics in the middle; one of the few crystal-clear visual memories I have of this show is him raising his hands to head in exasperation and muttering, “Aw, fuck, I forget the rest” into the mic with a huge grin. Sometimes the mistakes are some of the most memorable moments of a PJ concert (I’ve seen my fair share).
I was blown away by “Rearviewmirror” to close the main set. This one performance forever changed my opinion of the song—I never realized until that moment just how much power it has. The clincher came in the final breakdown, where Pearl Jam employs a series of strobe lights to match the machine-gun rhythm. It’s one of the best times to not be as close to the stage, because the effect is mesmerizing. The band doesn’t use lights that much, but this sequence continues to be a concert highlight.
Back in 1998 Pearl Jam shows were running right at two hours instead of the 2.5 they’ve grown to today, so the second encore was just two songs, both covers, and both memorable. It’s odd to think back on a time when nobody knew the song “Last Kiss,” but Ed introduced it as “an old ’50s song we learned before we left Seattle.” Though many PJ fans have come to loathe “Last Kiss” in the years since (I’m not one of them), this was a rather momentous occasion as it was just the second time the band played what became their biggest hit the following summer.
My first Pearl Jam concert wrapped in about the best way possible with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” again back when this wasn’t an everynight staple (just six showings on the ’98 U.S. tour). I like “Yellow Ledbetter” as a closer, too (and at the time I may have even preferred it), but if I now had to choose one or the other, “RITFW” wins hands down. They own this song, sorry, Neil.
At one point in the show, Ed mentioned—with a bit of uncertainty—that this tour was going pretty well, even though they didn’t know what to expect coming into it. At the time, I certainly didn’t know I’d get to see the band another 13 times over the next dozen years, so I cherished this experience. Still do. I’ve listened to this bootleg countless times, and there was a period in my life where I could recite the setlist to you—in order, from memory. Objectively, this show falls somewhere in the middle of my lifelong Pearl Jam experience: It’s not one of the very best I’ve seen, but it’s certainly better than many. On an emotional level, though, this one’s right up at the top.
Blockbuster Music Entertainment Center
Brain of J
Given to Fly
Not for You
State of Love and Trust
Do the Evolution
Better Man/Save It for Later
Push Me, Pull Me
Rockin’ in the Free World
Show Time: 2 hours