Pearl Jam – [Box Set]

Saturday, 30 April 2011

How many bands can say that they had a three-year period as tumultuous as Pearl Jam did between 1993 and 1995 and were still a band by the end of it? The number can't possibly be too large because the sequence of events through that period of time in Pearl Jam's chronology was truly extraordinary; in '93 Pearl Jam surpassed every expectation anyone could have had for a follow-up to Ten with Vs., only to be saddled with being the great white hope for both grunge and Generation X following the death of Kurt Cobain. A test that size would be substantial, but then Pearl Jam alienated a bunch of fans with the release of the wholly complicated and conflicted Vitalogy in 1995 as another twist in an already twisted story.

Is your head spinning from just reading that?

Just reading about the whirlwind couldn't have been comparable to facing down the twin meat grinders of public and critical opinion in front of Pearl Jam at the time, but the chronicle of events represented by the 3-disc 1993-1995 set (which includes both Vs. and Vitology as well as a concert the band played on April 12, 1994 – seven days after Kurt Cobain is estimated to have died, and just four after his body was discovered) is a truly excellent collection that will not only remind listeners of the time, but give a bit of additional insight of it to which fans may not have been privy previously. With reviews of the Vs. and Vitalogy reissues already running on Ground Control, the concentration in this review will be on the live show included captured at The Orpheum Theater in Boston MA. and included in this set as the sort of mid-point in the time-line.

Listening now and knowing the sequence of events, it's possible to hear a sort of pall overtake the band's performance in the early playing of the set as they muster the energy to crank up the volume for “Oceans” and “Even Flow” to open the show. There's power in it, but it feels a bit forced; an impression that is proven true when Eddie Vedder welcomes the crowd with a stiff and pensive “Good evening” after “Even Flow,” and then gets increasingly somber as he explains the reasoning behind an incendiary cover of The Dead Boys' “Sonic Reducer” (where Pearl Jam is joined by Mark Arm from Mudhoney). Somehow, in that cover, Pearl Jam and Arm manage to sum up the general sense of malaise and disappointment that follow Cobain's suicide and, even now, it still hits like a sledge hammer to the guts as one listens, and it sounds like it might have done the same to Vedder as he he gets positively dour in his delivery of “Immortality.” As that song ends, it's impossible to miss what's driving this show: it is catharsis that is moving the band. They're on ground they don't want to be on, but they're soldiering through anyway because they need to, and because their fans need them to; that bleeds through the almost awkward deliveries “Glorified G” and a preview of “Not For You,” which Vedder prefaces the song with the words, “This song is about people who don't have taste, but like us anyway.”

As the set progresses, Pearl Jam bounces haphazardly back and forth pretty aimlessly as they preview Vitalogy a bit more (“Tremor Christ” rears its menacing head, as does “Dirty Frank,” which went unreleased until Lost Dogs came out in 2003) as well as rambling through a selection of songs from Ten and Vs., many of which get augmented/mangled at Vedder's whim; “Rats” gets grafted to a half-cover of Jane's Addiction's “Pigs In Zen” while “Blood,” “Once” nearly melt down, and Vedder chastises they fans in the balcony before rampaging into “Fuckin' Up.” The set is solid enough, but not for lack of trying as it regularly teeters on the brink and nearly falls over the edge as Vedder seems to come unhinged several times over with a demeanor that could best be described as petulant. By the end though, he has returned to the point at which he began to deliver an exhausted and emotionally vacant take on “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town,” and that's where the set ends abruptly, with a “Thank you and good night.”

As it must have been at the time of the performance, Live At The Orpheum is difficult to hear because there's no doubt that the pressure was beginning to get to the band  and, unfortunately, it would only get worse. Within months of this show, Vitalogy would be released and, while the album has certainly gotten better with age, it left many fans with mixed feelings upon its original release. The nature, background and reasoning for that is all included here with both Vs. and Vitalogy book-ending this this live show in the 1993 – 1995 three-disc set and, with the understanding that it supplies, a new understanding is brought to light of the time and head space that Pearl Jam was locked into; listening to the discs in sequence, existing fans will feel justified that they stuck with the band through it all, and those who were put off by Vitalogy may now be given cause to look twice.


Further Reading:

Ground Control review of Vs. reissue

Ground Control review of Vitalogy reissue
Ground Control Pearl Jam discography review


Pearl Jam's 1993 – 1995 Box Set is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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