You know all about the Dead Heads. Well, there is a new gang of touring fanatics emerging, but they aren’t tie-dye-wearing hippies; it’s more of a flannel/punk rock situation. Say hello to the Jammers. Like their music-junkie parents did before them, Jammers follow this era’s Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam. No show is ever too far away for them to get to, and no matter where the show may be, one thing remains the same: a musical experience unlike anything else. Take, for example, Pearl Jam’s newest release, Live at the Gorge (Rhino), a three-show box set recorded at the Gorge, a 20,000-seat outdoor amphitheater near Seattle, and you just might understand what these weird fans are so excited about.
To get in the right frame of mind, picture yourself down on a hillside ledge overlooking the Columbia River on a summer evening, summed up by singer Eddie Vedder as “as hot as the devil’s asshole.” Don’t forget to bring along a big blanket, a few cold beers, maybe something of the herbal variety for your smoking enjoyment. Finally, hit play, sit back and relax. An unassuming group of five guys, Pearl Jam take the stage with the sun setting behind them. No, they did not break up. No, this is not the reunion tour. You just didn’t bother to check in. The army boots are gone, the flannel has been donated to the thrift store in the sky, but what remains is one of the best live rock bands that still matter. Not since the release of Yield in 1998 has the band been so tight and ferocious at the same time.
This live set is a heaping handful of that. Never satisfied to play the same set list or hide behind their hits, more than 70 different songs that dig deep into the band’s vast catalog are performed over three marathon shows recorded during P.J.’s 2005 initiation of the Gorge. Totaling more than eight hours, this is far too much for any one sitting. If broken into bite-size chunks over several sittings, one can digest the emotional connection between the band and its rapt fans and come to understand why Pearl Jam continues to make meaningful music and release live bootlegs. Classics like “Better Man,” “Daughter” (including a jaw-dropping cover of Dead Moon’s “It’s OK”) and “Alive” take on a new life as 20,000 people sing back to the band. Other classics, like “Evenflow,” have everyone looking for an after-sex cigarette following the blistering guitar solos by guitar god Mike McCready.
No P.J. show would be complete without cover songs, and here they feature Tom Petty, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and a soul-wrenching version of Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns” that pays homage to late lead singer Andy Wood, whose too-early exit paved the way for Vedder to take the torch and carry on where Wood left off.
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“Certain things in life, it’s a long way getting there,” says Vedder at one point between songs, “but once you get there, it’s fucking spectacular.”