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Pearl Jam: A Live Appreciation, 24 Years After the First Concert

Pearl Jam
Jason Oxenham, Getty Images

As the live juggernaut that is Pearl Jam marks the 24th anniversary of its first live show today (Oct. 22), the ever vital band is in the midst of a tour filled with epic three-hour sets that have managed to surprise even the most longstanding of fans.

It was a chilly Monday night exactly 24 years ago today that the band that would become known as Pearl Jam played its first gig ever. A San Diego surfer named Eddie Vedder — who’d first arrived in Seattle to jam with the group just a couple weeks before — stood at the mic tentatively. But when he opened his mouth, his powerful, soon to be very familiar voice boomed out over the crowd at Seattle’s tiny Off Ramp club, commanding attention and blending with Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitar onslaught as the quintet rolled through the public’s first glimpse of almost half of their 1991 debut, ‘Ten’ — including ‘Black,’ ‘Release,’ ‘Alive’ and ‘Even Flow.’ No one knew the songs, and yet the band had the audience rapt.

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Fast-forward 24 years to the 2014 U.S. tour and witness Pearl Jam, having honed their live magic for decades, at the top of their game. The band gave Detroit an unspoken Motor City musical homage (Oct. 16) as the band sprinkled instrumental bits of the Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog,’ Ted Nugent’s ‘Stranglehold’ and Kiss’ ‘Detroit Rock City’ into the set, and covered MC5’s ‘Kick Out the Jams’ in full. In Moline, Ill. last Friday (Oct. 17), a frisson of excitement rippled through the iWireless Center when it became clear Pearl Jam were playing 1996’s ‘No Code‘ in its entirety; a feat they’d never before attempted. That city not only got a new song, an acoustic ballad called ‘Moline,’ but Vedder ran out into the middle of the crowd to sing part of ‘Porch’ while the band — guitarists Gossard and McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron and organist Boom Gaspar — jammed onstage.

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Pearl Jam upped the ante in Milwaukee (Oct. 20) by not only performing all of 1998’s ‘Yield’ (a first), but by bringing Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen out for a cover of the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley.’ And at each show of the tour, the band reached deep into its 10-album catalog, treating crowds to cuts as disparate as 1993’s ‘Dissident’ back-to-back with 2006’s ‘Marker in the Sand,’ as they did in Tulsa (Oct. 8).

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"Pearl Jam have always poured passion and prowess into creating unforgettable concerts."Along the way, from that earliest of shows back in Seattle in 1990 to the current American shows, Pearl Jam have always poured passion and prowess into creating unforgettable concerts, shaping their reputation for never-the-same twice live experiences that fans regularly travel around the world to be a part of. The band first made a huge impression on live audiences in 1991 and 1992; as ‘Ten’ climbed the charts, so did Eddie Vedder find a way to climb rafters and stage rigging to leap out in to the crowd during particularly ferocious jams. His leap during ‘Porch’ from a camera rig into the maw of the huge Pinkpop festival pit in 1992 was immortalized in Cameron Crowe’s 2011 film, ‘Pearl Jam Twenty.’

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In 1995, with three albums under their belts, Pearl Jam brought forth their first nearly three-hour gig in front of 47,000 fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field, crafting a workout from favorites like ‘Jeremy,’ album cuts like ‘Tremor Christ,’ and rare covers including Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People.’

The following year — as Pearl Jam eschewed Ticketmaster venues and with ‘No Code’ afoot — the band descended upon New York’s Randall’s Island, going past the three-hour mark with an intense set in front of a churning pit. PJ’s second show at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden in 1998 made history as the band not only played the rarity ‘Breath,’ responding to a three-night campaign wherein thousands of fans held up signs requesting the song, but Vedder was inspired to hurl his mic cord into the rafters, and climb it to sing the unusual ‘Alive’ closer while dangling in mid-air.

The 2000s brought some of Pearl Jam’s longest shows, each with a rich setlist: State College, Pennsylvania in 2003 clocked in at three hours and thirty-eight minutes and was studded with special songs including the rarely played ‘Satan’s Bed.’ Just a couple of months later, Pearl Jam opened for themselves in Mansfield, Mass., playing an acoustic set before support act Sleater-Kinney, and then their own full set afterward.

By the end of the decade, Pearl Jam setlists were freer than ever. The band closed down Philadelphia’s Spectrum in 2009 with a run of four shows that culminated with a Halloween gig during which the band donned red flowerpot hats and yellow suits to cover Devo’s ‘Whip It!’ in addition to doling out favorites like ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ and ‘Better Man’ alongside rarer tracks like ‘Out of My Mind’ and ‘Crown of Thorns’ (originally by pre-Pearl Jam band Mother Love Bone).

Pearl Jam’s feat at Wrigley Field in July 2013 continued the band’s live evolution. Interrupted by a major thunderstorm, the band nevertheless rocked until 2AM, playing three brand new tunes from the then-forthcoming album ‘Lightning Bolt,’ bringing Cubs legend Ernie Banks onstage and letting guitarist McCready’s fingers fly with his cover of Van Halen’s ‘Eruption.’

"Pearl Jam wanted to ‘rattle the bolts’ of the arena."With the current 2014 tour, Pearl Jam have been bringing their entire history as a live band to bear. Vedder had told the Nebraska crowd recently (Oct .9) that Pearl Jam wanted to “rattle the bolts” of the arena — it turns out they did that night after night.

Pearl Jam’s tour lands at Denver’s Pepsi Center tonight (Oct. 22) before winding up with a pair of shows at the Bridge School Benefit concert in Mountain View, California.

Next: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder Lives Up to Promise He Made to a Fan In 1992

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