Need a Pearl Jam primer? Here’s what you should know if you live in Seattle

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Pearl Jam is putting on two big shows in Seattle this week — the Seattle Home Shows. Don’t know much about the band beyond “Jeremy” and “Better Man”? Seattle music writer and Pearl Jam fan Travis Hay wrote this Pearl Jam primer for Evergrey director Mónica Guzmán, who’s studying up ahead of tonight’s show, and we figure there’s a lot more of you who could use it. Want more? Check out Travis’s The Anywhere Shows Pearl Jam podcast.

Origins

The friendship of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament is the cornerstone of Pearl Jam. They were in a band together called Green River back in the late 80s. That band also featured Mark Arm, singer for Mudhoney, and when it disbanded Jeff and Stone went on to form Mother Love Bone. MLB’s singer, Andy Wood, was a charismatic frontman. He was a mixture of Freddie Mercury showmanship, David Bowie glam and late-80s hair metal attitude. He took on the stage persona of “Landrew” when performing and he said Mother Love Bone plated “love rock.”

Andy Wood, who was roommates with Chris Cornell, died of a heroin overdose shortly before Mother Love Bone was set to release its debut album. The buzz at the time was that MLB was on the cusp of being the next big thing on a national level.

Mother Love Bone sounds a lot different than Pearl Jam. You don’t need to know MLB to be a Pearl Jam fan or to appreciate Pearl Jam, but if there’s one Mother Love Bone song you must know as a Pearl Jam fan it is “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns.” Technically it’s two songs, but they are absolutely beautiful. Highly recommended.

Studio albums

Pearl Jam has released 10 studio albums. The first, titled Ten, is a diamond-certified record by the RIAA. What that means in non-music geek speak is that it has sold more than 10 million copies. There are only 92 diamond-certified albums since the RIAA started tracking sales, so that’s a huge deal.

Here’s a breakdown of the albums:

Ten
This is the album everyone knows. Highlights include the big singles “Alive,” “Jeremy,” “Black” and “Even Flow.” The latter was written from the POV of a homeless man that Eddie would pass by while walking in Seward Park.

Vs
The sophomore album, originally titled Five Against One, which is believed to be a reference to the five members of the band facing the world. It’s a heavier album than the debut and the songwriting is much improved. It sold 950K copies in its first week, which set a Billboard record for first-week sales. Highlights include: “Animal” (where the five against one comes from), “Daughter,” “Dissident” and “Elderly  Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” “Elderly Woman” is a concert staple and when “Daughter” is performed live the band often tags on another song to the end such as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”

Vitalogy
This is a lot of people’s favorite Pearl Jam album. It’s also where Pearl Jam begins to test its fans a little bit by expanding its sound and making music that may not be commercially viable.

They experiment on this album and get a little weird. Tracks like “Aye Davanita,” which is basically a chant with a funky backdrop, and “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me,” aren’t really songs. Those tracks are more sound experiments and definitely a bit of a left turn for the band. “Bugs” is Eddie on an accordion talking about, well, bugs. And “Pry, To” is Ed asking for his “P-R-I-V-A-C-Y.”

But this record has some of the band’s most popular non-Ten cuts too. “Better Man,” which Ed wrote years before joining Pearl Jam, is one of the band’s most popular songs. “Not For You,” “Spin the Black Circle” and “Whipping” are fan favorites. There’s also “Corduroy,” which I highly recommend and “Tremor Christ,” one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs.

No Code
The band’s most well-rounded, and in my opinion their best, album. This was released during their battle with Ticketmaster and it is when they started losing fans because it became impossible to see them live. Also, this album didn’t have the hard-rocking radio hits like the past three records. Still, if I had to choose one only Pearl Jam record to have in my collection this would be the one.

Recommended listening: “Smile:” A great love song. You will probably see some fans with “three crooked hearts” stickers or tattoos at The Home Shows, which is a reference to a “Smile” lyric. “Present Tense:” My favorite Pearl Jam song. It’s about staying in the present and if they play it during The Home Shows, which chances are they will, I will probably cry. “Red Mosquito:” A nice slide guitar and an overall good rock song.

Yield
Pearl Jam returned to making songs fit for radio with this album. Released in 1998 it contains “Given to Fly,” written by Mike McCready. It’s also got some more upbeat songs like “Do the Evolution,” which has an animated video directed and animated by Spawn creator and comic book icon Todd McFarlane. The video was the band’s first music video since 1992’s “Jeremy.”

Binaural
Named after an experimental recording technique involving stereo separation, the band got a little dark on this release. The first three songs are straightforward rock songs but the rest of the album gets a bit more diverse. “Nothing As It Seems” is a bit of a slow and dark vibe. “Soon Forget” is the first time Ed plays ukulele on a Pearl Jam record. It’s a solid album but definitely not the radio-friendly dose of rock that was “Yield.”

Riot Act
Here we enter the George W Bush II era of Pearl Jam, which is when they started to arguably become the most politically vocal they’ve been in their career. “Bu$h Leaguer” was written specifically about the former president and it did not go over well when played live in certain areas of the country. During this album the band’s sixth member, Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar, joined to play keyboards. You’ll probably hear some “Boooooom” chants from the crowd during The Home Shows. His keys add a lot to several Pearl Jam classics.   

Notable songs include “Love Boat Captain,” which makes lyrical reference to 9 fans who died at a Pearl Jam concert when the crowd rushed the stage, “I Am Mine” “Thumbing My Way” and “You Are,” which is another one of my favorite songs. Matt Cameron wrote it and the guitars and lyrics floor me every time I hear it.

Pearl Jam
The self-titled record, which is often referred to as “Avocado,” is their first and only album for Clive Davis’ Jive Records label. The band had ended their contract with Sony’s Epic Records and signed a one-record deal with Jive. Highlights include “Life Wasted,” “Worldwide Suicide” and the seven-minute burner “Inside Job.”

Backspacer
Released in 2009 this is the shortest Pearl Jam album in length and it is also the first album the group released 100 percent independently. It was controversial for fans because the band partnered with Target to sell the record. It includes “The Fixer,” which is a cathartic and energetic song along with “Just Breathe,” a song you may have heard on various TV programs or light-rock radio stations.

Lightning Bolt
The most recent album is also the band’s most consistent. It sounds like, well, it sounds like what a bunch of guys in their 50s making rock music should sound like. There’s nothing too special here but it is still a very enjoyable record. “Mind Your Manners” is a fun, punky track. “Lightning Bolt” has a very uplifting sound. “Pendulum” is sort of dark but also very pretty. And “Sirens” is one of the best late-period Pearl Jam songs you’ll hear. I recommend all four of those tracks.

Important b-sides

Pearl Jam has released several notable b-sides and in 2003 they released a double-album full of b-sides called Lost Dogs. Lost Dogs is a great album and every song on it is solid. But you don’t need to know all of the band’s rarities in order to appreciate Pearl Jam. There are five b-sides I think you need to know and here they are:

Yellow Ledbetter:” Written by Mike McCready as an ode to Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” this song often closes out Pearl Jam’s sets. Nobody knows the words to the song and it’s rumored that Eddie Vedder changes them every time he sings them.

Last Kiss” Originally recorded by Wayne Cochran in 1961 this is a dark love song about a guy who gets in a car wreck and loses his girlfriend. Pearl Jam made it their own when they recorded and released a version of the song in 1998. It was later released on a compilation charity CD raising money for refugees of the Kosovo War. The album raised millions of dollars for that cause partly because of the inclusion of “Last Kiss”

Technically, if we’re going by chart success, the song is also the band’s biggest song. It hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts, which is the highest chart position for any Pearl Jam song.

Footsteps:” This was originally written as part of the Moma-Son demo tape that Stone and Jeff sent to recruit Eddie into Pearl Jam back in 1990. It’s a simple acoustic track with beautiful lyrics. Chris Cornell also recorded a version of this song (which was written by Stone Gossard), released it on the Andy Wood tribute album Temple of the Dog and called it “Times of Trouble.”

State of Love and Trust:” Technically not a b-side but never formally released on a Pearl Jam album. This was recorded for the Singles soundtrack and is often played live. Its Singles companion track “Breath” is a live rarity but is also equally great.

Crazy Mary:” This fan favorite often finds its way into set lists and is a cover of a Victoria Williams song. It was released in 1993 as part of the compilation album Sweet Relief, which benefitted Williams, who was diagnosed with MS. The song is a great cover on its own but it really comes alive in a concert setting. Boom’s organ adds tons of depth and energy to the song and Ed often gets very into delivering the chorus of “Take a bottle, drink it down, pass it around.”

Important Seattle concerts

There are plenty of important concert dates in Pearl Jam’s storied career – Fox Theatre 94, Solider Field ’95, the Roskilde tragedy … but since this is a primer for The Home Shows here are a few local shows of note.

Drop in the Park 1992
A free concert held in Magnuson Park that almost didn’t happen. The purpose of the show was to get people to register to vote and at the last minute the city of Seattle nearly pulled the permit for the concert citing fears that the security wouldn’t be able to manage the expected crowds.

Memorial Stadium July 1998
Two shows were held at Memorial Stadium. The concerts were a fundraiser for several local youth services non-profits and raised more than $500,000 for those causes. Because of these concerts the band was awarded the “Leading Edge Philanthropy Award” by the Seattle Center Foundation in 1998 for making the concept of giving back to the community cool to generation Xers.

Benaroya Hall 2003
A mostly acoustic concert in a very intimate hometown environment. The concert was a benefit for YouthCares (see a theme here of giving back to the community?). It’s definitely worth seeking out the recording of this concert, which was released as a live double-album.

Additional resources

A lot has already been covered but if you want to get a little more in-depth, I recommend checking out the PJ 20 documentary, which gives a great overview of the band as told by the band. And I also recommend going to Apple Music or Spotify and finding some Pearl Jam playlists. I know there’s a Pearl Jam Essentials and Pearl Jam Deep Cuts playlist on Apple Music. Also, the band has released a few playlists of its own on Spotify that are worth checking out.