By my count, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain made just three mistakes before he died. One was that nasty little heroin habit he had, the second was when he decided that Bean was a lovely name for a daughter, and the third was when he suggested Pearl Jam wouldn't last, calling them corporate and never part of the underground. Now with Nirvana dead, Sound-garden wilted and Mudhoney gone, it's Pearl Jam who has had the last laugh, enjoying a vital 10-year career that continues to be defined by defying many of the corporate-music conventions that Cobain used to label the band.
While Pearl Jam's 1994 suit against Ticketmaster is the most famous of the Seattle group's industry battles, it's really just one indicator of the band's willingness to put their willful idealism into action. Recent high-profile events show how the Jam is using technology to help keep them connected with their fans, despite cooler album sales and industry consolidation that gives artists less leverage than ever. They are pushing the envelope and folks are responding.
Last September, Pearl Jam released the first installment of the 72 minimally packaged, plug-and-play double-live "bootleg" CDs that are all now on the market. The project covers every show but one (the June 30 Denmark debacle in which nine fans were accidentally killed) on their tour for the well-received Binaural. The band originally wanted to sell the bootlegs only through their website, but their label (Epic/Sony) agreed to distribute them through the normal retail outlets. While the sound on the records is first-rate, the band kept the production costs purposely low by choosing bootleg-style grocery-bag cover designs with simple black lettering. All the live albums retail for around $12.99; not bad for two discs with almost 30 songs. Fans obviously loved it. In March, Pearl Jam became the first band to simultaneously debut seven albums on The Billboard 200 chart. That's no small feat, especially for an outfit supposedly out of fashion.
Still not content with this groundbreaking distribution, word has it that Pearl Jam has designed a mobile recording studio in order to offer die-hard fans a recording of a concert minutes after it ends. While many groups such as Metal-lica and the Grateful Dead have allowed fans to make their own bootlegs for years, Pearl Jam's arrangement will allow fans to hear -- in CD-quality sound -- every Eddie Vedder scream, moan and howl before they even get out of the parking lot. What an ultimate souvenir.
Perhaps second only to Pearl Jam's hatred for Ticketmaster is their aversion to the most dominant marketing medium in the industry: the music video. The band hasn't done any since their second album, Vs., in 1993. But PJ recently broke its video silence when, on May 1, it released its first live-concert video, titled "Pearl Jam: Touring Band 2000," on the DVD format. Again, the video reflects the band's D.I.Y. ethic. It features 28 songs culled from 19 different concerts that were videotaped on digital cameras by crew members without producers or directors. An additional 50 minutes features three live versions of unreleased instrumentals from the "Binaural" sessions and videos for "Oceans" and "Do the Evolution," the latter directed by "Spawn" comics creator Todd McFarlane. Three tracks also offer footage shot with the "Matt-cam," a side-view camera fixed on drummer Matt Cameron. The DVD has already been certified platinum and was No. 1 on Soundscan's Music Video DVD chart for five weeks after its release.
"Touring Band" is the group's second foray into the DVD format -- the first was "Single Video Theory," a documentary of sorts shot during the Yield sessions, released in 1998.
What's next for these flanneled futurists? According to their website, the band is working on a rarities album that it hopes to complete by December, and guitarist Stone Gossard is releasing an album with Pete Droge in late summer. Spin magazine is doing an upcoming retrospective to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of Pearl Jam's now-legendary debut, Ten (1991). Finally, you can hear the ripping version of "The Kids Are All Right" on The Who tribute, "Substitute: the Songs of the Who," released on June 12. It's as fitting a song as any for Pearl Jam in 2001.
So which of the 72 bootleg performances should you get? Well, three of the live albums chronicle Florida dates. The Aug. 12 show last year in Tampa was plagued by a few sound problems. Compared to some of the better concerts in the series, Vedder's voice is a bit buried in the mix and the sound is compressed. There was a malfunction in the tape machines during "Last Exit," and they added the masterboard tape version at the end of the album.
It's some of the faster warhorses that suffer from the CD's airy acous-tics, including an out-of-sync "Jeremy" and a listless "Evenflow." However, a surging "Rearview Mirror" and tightly wound "Do the Evolution" show off Vedder's considerable pipes and Cameron's thumping drums. An appreciative Vedder really works the crowd on the set's slower tunes, as the band adds a funky psychedelic sing-along of Pink Floyd's "Brick in the Wall" in the middle of "Daughter." The crowd even loves it when Vedder pulls out the ukulele and, like a grungy Tiny Tim, performs "Soon Forget" during the second encore.
The Aug. 9 and 10 performances in West Palm Beach are more freewheeling, with Vedder mentioning on the opening night how the band had been surfing. That might explain the somewhat sloppy start, but PJ quickly picks up speed and ends the set with The Who's "Leaving Here" and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." The second show features a terrific version of Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary," a bluesy "Yellow Ledbetter" and The Who's epic "Baba O Riley." Even compared to the band's always-evolving and risk-taking sets, these performances seem looser than some others on the tour.
In addition to building a mammoth live-recording legacy, most members of Pearl Jam are in a side project: Bassist Jeff Ament swims with Three Fish; guitarist Mike McCready's licks fueled fictional band Stillwater in the film Almost Famous; Cameron drives all-star outfit Wellwater Conspiracy, which includes ex-Soundgarden member Ben Shepherd and ex-Monster Magnet man John Paul McBain. WWC's third release, "The Scroll and Its Combinations" (TVT Records), is the latest side item from the PJ camp, forging a quirky sound that combines '60s garage stomp with elements of psychedelia and sunny art rock.
From the instant digital gratification of fresh-pressed bootlegs to continued musical exploration in side projects, Pearl Jam proves that it still has many timely tricks up its lengthy flanneled sleeve. And their fans love every minute of it.