This feature originally ran on August 25, 2016.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. To celebrate 30 years of Pearl Jam, we’re republishing our ranking with Gigaton included!
That was the only word Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman texted me late Monday night. As I shrugged off sleep to try and figure out what exactly that meant, the rest of his message came through: “Tonight’s set was so much better.” I stopped getting dressed and sank back into bed. I knew what he was upset about. No apocalypse, no emergency, just a Pearl Jam setlist that he liked better than the one we got two nights earlier at Wrigley Field.
I clicked on the setlist link, scanned down, and texted back: “Oh fuck…”
In words barely more eloquent than those, we spent the next hour, on and off, bemoaning that we had covered the wrong show — like two spoiled brats who had each found a shiny dime at his feet but grumbled that it wasn’t a quarter. He regretted missing his favorite, “State of Love and Trust”, and some deeper Ten cuts. I became nearly inconsolable after processing the trio of “Off He Goes”, “Immortality”, and “Rearviewmirror”. No doubt he, like myself, went to bed thinking about our show that should’ve been. By the morning, though, any disappointment or jealousy had subsided. We were content again. Grateful for our experience and happy for the experience of 40,000-plus fellow fans.
(Read: Buy Pearl Jam Concert Tickets)
I only bring up this anecdote because I think it hints at precisely what makes being a die-hard Pearl Jam fan unique. At the risk of sounding creepy, I might draw the distinction that I don’t love this band — I’m in love with this band. Following them feels more like being in a relationship than merely being a fan of a rock band. A relationship where a couple setlist omissions can feel like a personal slight, but a good night’s sleep restores reason and makes you realize just how lucky you are. One where a dud of an album (looking at you, Lightning Bolt) after a long wait can never be a deal breaker because you have too much history and far too many wonderful memories.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. I’ve never run across a tighter, more friendly community than the Pearl Jam fan base, several of whom I shared a plane ride with the morning of last Saturday’s Wrigley Field show. I knew them by their tour shirts, empty poster tubes tucked into their backpacks, and willingness to swap stories. I feel that same sense of family among the congregations at shows, and it’s an energy no doubt felt and reciprocated by the band: whether it be Eddie Vedder conducting a crowd-wide sing-along, taking a moment to offer words of encouragement to someone he knows is in attendance and struggling through hard times, or halting a show mid-song to make sure a female fan is alright, as he did at Monday night’s concert. That’s the aura that wafts through a Pearl Jam show. Fans feel like they matter as much as the band, and there’s an unspoken pact of sorts that oversees the proceedings and adheres to the idea that either everyone will have a safe, fun celebration or we’ve defeated the entire purpose of coming together in the first place.
There are a lot of bands like Pearl Jam that have been with me since the early ’90s when I first started seeking out music on my own, but none that I feel this same type of connection to. Maybe it’s because Pearl Jam isn’t just a band that I grew up with; they’re a band I grew alongside and evolved with throughout the years. That separates them from so many of the other bands that might get dubbed legacy acts, if they’re even still around. Nobody goes to a Pearl Jam show looking to recapture their youth or bask in the fleeting warmth of nostalgia. We see a middle-aged Vedder still bounding around stage and summoning an inner fire or Mike McCready still every bit the guitar hero at 50, and we realize that the here and now, at least for our three hours together, is enough. That it really does make much more sense to live in the present tense.
It’s in this spirit of love and family that we humbly pieced together this project, a romp through a catalog that has made hundreds of unforgettable nights possible. If you’re reading this, you’re probably part of the Pearl Jam family. That being the case, feel free to comment or disagree in the comments section below, and we’ll look forward to seeing you the next time Pearl Jam rolls through town. Posters up!