Photo by David Brendan Hall
Across the past two and a half decades, Pearl Jam have cultivated a reputation for being one of the most incredible live acts of all time. From the very first time they performed in front of a live, paying audience at the Off Ramp in Seattle on October 22, 1990, right up to today, they have set a bar of excellence that few are able to surpass. Over time, the band’s shows have morphed from tight, high-energy, devil-may-care affairs to surprise-filled marathons where anything can, and usually does, happen. A ticket to see Pearl Jam is a near guarantee that you’re about to witness something truly extraordinary.
From the very beginning, it was apparent that the band had a visible, natural chemistry and rapport onstage. They each adopted loosely defined personas for themselves that they still wear today. Out front you have Eddie Vedder, the crooning, wild, and wine-swigging Dionysus crafting the setlists and operating as the master of ceremonies and chief focal point. Next to him is Mike McCready, the incendiary guitar hero, ripping licks and burning solos. Then there’s the steady bedrock of Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and a variety of drummers keeping things moving underneath.
As one of the earliest proponents of the official bootleg release format, the marketplace is literally flooded with recordings of live shows from throughout Pearl Jam’s career. Having played thousands of times together, it’s a bit difficult for the regular consumer, or even PJ super-fan, to figure out where to begin when it comes to wading through all of that material, so we’ve compiled a list of the 10 greatest Pearl Jam concerts of all time.
Did your favorite Pearl Jam show make our list? Let us know in the comments below.
10. Orpheum Theater – April, 12 1994
Pearl Jam pride themselves on being a band of, by, and for the people. Yes, they are rock stars, but no, that doesn’t mean that they carry themselves as though they are above everyone else. In that spirit, for the second to last show of their Vs. tour in 1994 at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, the band let their road crew completely dictate their setlist. Needless to say, the roadies chose wisely, and the concert that night was jam-packed with deep cuts like “Alone” and “Dirty Frank”, as-yet-unreleased songs from Vitalogy like “Immortality” and “Not for You”, and cool covers like Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up” and Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”, which they performed with Mudhoney’s Mark Arm.
09. Key Arena – November 6, 2000
For the final show of their massive, three-leg worldwide tour in 2000, Pearl Jam decided to truly go home and ended things with a two performances inside Key Arena in Seattle. It’s the only concert from that run where the band played the song “Alive” and was one of only 18 bootlegs that they tagged with a special “Ape/Man” logo designating it as a truly special performance. The inclusion of the track “Little Wing” by another famous Seattle rock music institution, Jimi Hendrix, in the set was an especially nice and poignant touch. Hat’s off to McCready for an exquisite solo.
08. Madison Square Garden – September 11, 1998
New York City: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Pearl Jam played two nights back-to-back on its Yield tour in 1998, but it was the second performance on September 11th that is the most notable. That entire run was quite spectacular, but for some reason the fans in the front row made it their mission during the band’s foray into the Big Apple to get Pearl Jam to perform the Singles film soundtrack song “Breath”, which they hadn’t done in four years. They all held up signs emblazoned with the word “Breath” on them until, finally, Vedder acknowledged their presence. “This is the third night in a row, right?” he asked the people up front. “What, is this some kind of organized religion or something? You know, we come up here as a collective band, and we give and give and give, and you just want more? Do you think you deserve it? Well, I think you do. Fuck you, we’re gonna play it!” Needless to say, the crowd lost its collective mind.
07. Tweeter Center – July 11, 2003
This gig is remarkable mostly for the band’s decision to perform a special acoustic set even before the show openers Sleater-Kinney took the stage. The main set was predictably fantastic, but the Massachusetts fans received a huge treat when the band gave them a especially delicious pre-pre-concert amuse bouche comprised of rarely performed gems like “All Those Yesterdays”, “All Or None”, and “Footsteps” to go along with badass covers of The Ramones’ “I Believe in Miracles”, “Know Your Rights” by the Clash, and “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival later in the evening.
06. Alpine Valley Music Theater – September 4, 2011
In 2011, Pearl Jam decided to pause, take a look around, and consider where they’ve been and how they got there. They aligned with rock writer/director Cameron Crowe to produce the band documentary PJ20 and set up a two-day festival in Wisconsin to commemorate their two decades together as a band. The phrase “career-spanning” gets thrown out a lot when talking about concerts put on by bands that have been around for more than a few records, but there’s truly no better way to describe the collection of songs that the band performed that night. The real kicker came in the second encore when Chris Cornell sauntered out to perform a four-song Temple of the Dog reunion. “Hunger Strike” still kills.
05. Wrigley Field – July 19, 2013
Sometimes the elements work in your favor, and sometimes they don’t. As a band, all you can do is make the best of a bad situation and hope that the crowd sticks it out with you. Fortunately, for Pearl Jam, they have one of the most dedicated followings in music, which helped turned this rain-soaked gig at Wrigley Field from a near-cancelled nightmare into a transcendent experience for everyone gathered. Just seven songs into the show, Pearl Jam were forced to shut things down due to a coming thunderstorm. For the next two hours and 45 minutes, the fans stuck it out through a tremendous downpour, and when the band finally re-emerged at 11:45 p.m., they rewarded the faithful with a show for the ages: 33 songs in total culminating with a boisterous version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”. The concert finally ended at around 2:00 a.m. with everyone soaking wet, but all smiles.
Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman and Editorial Director Matt Melis covered the show for CoS.
04. The Off Ramp – October 22, 1990
This list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of the gig that started it all. The Off Ramp doesn’t even actually exist as a music venue in Seattle anymore, but it’s name will be forever etched in rock history as the place that helped launch one of the biggest and most successful bands of all time. Pearl Jam weren’t even billed as Pearl Jam that night. They were still known as Mookie Blaylock, a name they had taken from the New Jersey Nets’ point guard. The turnout was alright, but the band blew those gathered away with material from its as-yet-unrecorded debut album, Ten. From a performance standpoint, it might not be the best show that they ever played, but if you had a time machine and could go back and revisit them at any point in their history, it’d be difficult to pick a better moment than this one.
03. The Gorge – September 1, 2005
All due respect to Red Rocks out in Colorado, but the Gorge Amphitheater, situated way out in the middle of nowhere in Washington State’s vast Columbia River Valley, is the most gorgeous place to take in a live concert anywhere on Earth. It’s the kind of venue that brings out the best in the artists performing there, or at least that seems to be the case for Pearl Jam anyway. The band played there for the first time in 2005 and put on a show as magnificent as the view behind them. The band opened with a cover of the Ramones track “I Believe in Miracles” and closed things out 36 songs later with another cover: “Baba O’Reilly” by The Who. You know it’s a special gig when a band decides to come back out for three different encores.
02. The Moore Theater – January 17, 1992
Hometown shows are a different kind of animal. Generally speaking, the crowd feels more invested and willing to give it up to the performers onstage. The band typically has a number of close friends and family in attendance and feels a real impetus to do well. Whenever they perform in Seattle, Pearl Jam really put the pedal to the floor to give themselves over to a very enthusiastic array of people. This show at the Moore Theater is a prime example, coming just a little under five months after the release of its debut album, Ten. The band pulled out all the stops playing every single song from that record with an intensity that far surpasses the recorded material. Bonus points go to this show as well for providing the live footage that makes up much of the “Even Flow” music video.
01. Soldier Field – July 11, 1995
The single, greatest concert that Pearl Jam ever performed took place at the home of the Chicago Bears on July 11, 1995. “I want to thank the Grateful Dead for letting us use their stage,” Vedder said to crowd early on, referring to that band’s farewell gig the previous weekend. “We think it’s only right that we play as long as they do.” And so they did. Across nearly three hours, the band dug deep into their own catalog of music, as well as an array of interesting, diverse, and unexpected covers in an effort to create the show of a lifetime. Nearly every song the band had recorded up to that point was brought out, as well as transcendent versions of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” and Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door”.
The crowd was completely into it, with 13,000 people moshing in front of the stage and thousands more banging their heads in the reserved seating up above. Vedder in particular seemed to feed off that energy, and by the end of the song “Blood”, he smashed his Telecaster to pieces in a fit of raw emotion. Bolts of lightning illuminated the sky behind them as they played on and on and on, proving an especially poignant backdrop during the song “Immortality”. After recent battles with illness, and larger battles with Ticketmaster throughout the earlier part of the year, this one show at Soldier Field was where it finally all came together for the band and elevated them from grunge superstars to rock and roll immortals.