So much went on at PJ20 both in my head and on stages, I still haven’t gotten it all out. So, at the risk of overstaying the band’s welcome with potential readers, here are my final words on the festival and the state of Pearl Jam.
Fans: do you remember what first drew you to PJ? I’ll bet it was one of two things: incredible, original guitar riffs, or Eddie Vedder—his voice, his attitude, the uncomfortably honest facial expressions he makes when he’s singing that say “I’m letting it all pour out and I have no control over it.” Eddie may have lost a little of his upper register, and he may not be climbing speaker stacks and diving into the crowd any more, but other than that he’s virtually unchanged. But those guitar riffs are GONE. That’s the biggest problem with PJ today, a point driven home once again by the new song they played on Jimmy Fallon last night.
Following 1996’s No Code, PJ’s deliberate move away from the alt-rock formula that had made them famous and their last number one album for 13 years, Vedder resigned as dictator of the band. Beginning with Yield in ’98, PJ was a democracy, with all members of the band coming to recording sessions with full songs to offer, and the result was the most successful creative period of their career. But something happened after 2002’s Riot Act and the ensuing tour: after a long break, the band went back into the studio and nobody had any material. The eventual album, 2006’s self-titled “avocado” release, was basically written collaboratively in the studio, and while it contains some good songs, the riffs are woefully unimaginative, often derivative. There’s the Ramones-ish “World Wide Suicide”, the AC/DC-aping “Comatose”, and “Gone”, basically a ripoff of PJ’s own “Given To Fly”.
At the time, I figured it was just that predictable impulse that strikes aging bands to “return to their roots” and make a simplistic rock record; not why I ever got into Pearl Jam, but whatever. Sadly, the next album, 2009’s Backspacer, had even fewer memorable tunes and was even more simplistic in approach. It’s not really as bad as this sounds, but Nickelback could write most of those riffs. I don’t by any means expect PJ to keep writing in the same style over and over again—the fact that they haven’t is why I grew to love them so much. But if this new “Olé” tune is any indication, Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are pretty much out of ideas, and PJ will have to rely on something other than memorable riffs to keep our interest.
So when you go see PJ live, what else is there? Well, there are lyrics—hardly the most important live element for most bands, but with PJ they can kill you. Still, the lyrics don’t change much between studio and stage. There’s the playing of b-sides and rarities, a time-honored tradition for PJ and very gratifying for the fans, myself included, and we got a shitload of those at Alpine Valley last weekend. Chasing your favorite obscure tunes can keep you coming back, but really, the goal should be to not care too much about the setlist and go for the uniqueness of the music regardless of song. The miracle is that old tunes from Ten, even “Jeremy”, still get played with a passion that makes them feel vibrant and fresh even when there’s very little improv involved. But you probably see where I’m going with this: in the absence of really good new songs, improv is the key to keeping PJ relevant.
Let’s get one thing straight: I do not, nor will I ever, expect or want PJ to be Phish. These are two totally different modes of rock music we’re talking about here. Still, in the past, songs like “Rearviewmirror” and “Porch” and “Better Man” and several others have been vehicles for potentially out-there, unpredictable, inspired PJ jams. At PJ20, that reeeeeally wasn’t happening. It’s a testament to the enduring emotional connection I have with the band that they were able to crush me with this crucial element of their show missing. Yes, it was the beginning of the tour, and the focus was really on songs and guests and, unfortunately, Temple Of The Dog. I’m giving the band a pass for now, big time, believe me. But…
In the end, I was left with a somewhat painful question: Matt Cameron is probably the best drummer PJ has ever had, and he has even written at least one of my favorite PJ songs, but does he really have the ability or desire to loosen up? The rest of the band seemed pretty relaxed and up for whatever, but Cameron seemed serious and focused and…almost robotic. He has been perfect for the band in every way for most of the time he’s been with them; we may essentially have him to thank for there even BEING a Pearl Jam right now, but I can’t deny that during the No Code and Yield songs, I was totally wishing Jack Irons was behind the kit. It might’ve helped if they’d played even ONE SONG from Binaural, Cameron’s first and best album with the band, but overall it seemed like they might’ve stretched out a bit if they’d had a drummer who was interested in a bit of exploration.I still believe that the first half of the Cameron era, from the Yield tour in ’98 through the 2005 Canada tour, is the peak of PJ. I’m also far from writing the band off from reaching another peak at some point, even with Matt. But I think either Ed, Jeff, Mike and Stone need to go off into the wild (heh) and write some fucking killer riffs and come back together and make another fantastic album, or they’re going to have to figure out a way to make their live shows more interesting and different and unpredictable. And if that’s the answer, they’re going to have to find a more imaginative drummer. Hey, what’s Irons up to these days…?