A live album from Pearl Jam is nothing new. There are now 79 of the buggers, including the 72 ‘official bootlegs’ released between 2000 and 2001. Likewise the title of this new live record is an old joke. Pearl Jam’s very first live album, released back in 1998, was called Live On Two Legs, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Queen’s classic track Death On Two Legs. But the gag – now numerically precise in the case of this latest release – still works. And, with its knowing reference to old-rock royalty, it suggests that Pearl Jam are no longer embarrassed about being a stadium rock act.
It’s now 20 years since the Seattle band released their debut album, Ten, which set them off on the road to becoming heroes of the alternative rock era. But throughout their career, Pearl Jam, and especially singer Eddie Vedder, have remained typecast as hair-shirted ascetics. As recently as 2006, Rolling Stone magazine stated: “Pearl Jam have spent much of the past decade deliberately tearing apart their own fame.”
Perhaps Kurt Cobain was to blame. When he mocked Pearl Jam in 1991 for “pioneering a corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion”, he played on the punk-rock guilt at the heart of the Seattle scene. In truth, Ten was no more a corporate rock record than Nevermind was. But Cobain’s slur stuck, even after he and Vedder reconciled.
Pearl Jam’s third album, Vitalogy, released in late 1994, less than a year after Cobain’s suicide, was an attempt at enhancing the band’s credibility, with vinyl-fetishist garage-rock (Spin The Black Circle) and oddball experimentalism (Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me). What followed that was a series of laboured and self-consciously serious records. It was only in 2006, with the symbolically titled Pearl Jam album, that the band returned to the direct and accessible style of their debut, a theme that carried over into 2009’s Backspacer.
There is, however, a constant in Pearl Jam’s history that has a certain irony to it, something that would not have been lost on Cobain, that most reluctant of superstars. For all their hand-wringing, Pearl Jam have sold 60 million albums over two decades; even their least successful records have sold half-a-million in the US. And although Cobain’s jibe had some truth – Ten was the most polished of the breakthrough grunge albums – Pearl Jam’s success has been achieved on their own terms. This is one major-league rock band who have retained their integrity. Live On Ten Legs is proof of that.
In a sense, Live On Ten Legs is much like the classic 70s live albums released when the members of Pearl Jam were impressionable schoolkids; albums such as Aerosmith’s Live Bootleg and Kiss’s Alive! It has that same celebratory air, and it features many of Pearl Jam’s best-known, crowd-pleasing songs: Jeremy, Animal, State Of Love And Trust, Alive. Plus its big- room ambience gives a palpable sense of the scale on which this band operates on the road: the roar of a really big audience is unmistakable.
But, Pearl Jam being Pearl Jam,this is not simply a live ‘greatest hits’ set. That would be too easy. And, yes, too corporate rock. Featuring recordings dating from 2003 to 2010, it omits another album’s worth of great, career-defining songs, including Even Flow, Daughter, Dissident and Given To Fly. Instead it includes a bunch of recent songs (four from Backspacer) and a cover of PiL’s post-punk classic Public Image; it begins with another cover, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros’ Arms Aloft; it ends with the obscure B-side, Yellow Ledbetter.
Inevitably, it’s the old favourites that elicit the biggest cheers and carry the greatest power, especially the ass-kicking existentialist anthems Alive and Rearviewmirror, the latter arguably Pearl Jam’s greatest ever song. But this is an album full of great songs and great performances, confirming Vedder as one of the finest singers of his generation, and Pearl Jam as one of the truly iconic rock’n’roll bands.
As they proved before an audience of 50,000 at London’s Hyde Park in June 2010, Pearl Jam were made for the biggest stages. So, too, was Kurt Cobain, whose most memorable show with Nirvana came at the Reading festival in 1992. These people weren’t so different after all.