Sometime around 1993, Pearl Jam began removing the middlemen that obscured the way their music was marketed to the public. They stopped making videos, abandoned the music channel, and declined to release singles or grant interviews. In their most infamous quest, they boycotted Ticketmaster venues to protest the unreasonable service charges imposed on concertgoers, and launched an ill-fated independent tour. Bent upon stripping the rock act to its essential components — the rock album and the affordable rock concert — Pearl Jam seemed nostalgic for the days when rock was marketed most effectively through car stereos blaring through high school parking lots.
The latest manifestation of Pearl Jam’s reaction against commercial rock conventions occurred last month when they unloaded 25 different CDs of live shows from their European tour. As ambitious as the project appears, it is, more than anything else, surreal. Wading through a handful of live CDs packaged in thin cardboard, and pouring over the setlists stamped on the back, one feels as if he is scouring the bins of a dank, vinyl bootleg store in Greenwich Village rather than standing by the “Pearl Jam” placard in a generic Books/CD superstore. But it is the very idea of a band using their mettle to turn sanitized chain retail stores into independent bootleg vendors that makes this effort worthwhile.
Sure, some fanatics will go haywire and buy all the discs, and Pearl Jam may suddenly find themselves accused of exploiting their fans. But they certainly can’t be accused of selling the same disc 24 times. No two of the European shows are remotely the same, either in length or song selection, much less in organization (few sets open with the same song or close with the same encores). This alone is an admirable feat, not only because it displays the band’s attention to each performance, but because it stands in stark contrast to the one-size-fits-all, semi-choreographed shows to which so many stadium bands (and, perhaps even more inexcusably, some club acts) have fallen prey.
I purchased Arena di Verona (Italy), not only because of the enormous breadth of the set, but also because Italy apparently gave Pearl Jam a rather distant reception during their 1993 tour supporting U2. The two hour and 20 minute two-disc set has both a generous helping of the band’s most durable pop anthems (“Daughter,” “Better Man,” “Given to Fly”) along with some of their most wicked punk rock spasms (“Lukin,” “Habit”) from the underheralded No Code. As with most of the shows, the band gives equal time to all their records at Verona, including five songs from 1991’s Ten, and, unlike so many bands today, they do so without any snide remarks implying how put-upon they feel slogging through old material. In fact, for better or for worse, depending on your predilection toward him, singer Eddie Vedder hardly speaks at all.
As far as the live performance itself, the songs offer more in the way of adrenaline than improvisation, so there are only minor points of commentary: “Hail, Hail,” and “Animal,” for instance, are too fast, while ballads like “Black” and “Immortality” fare much better, refusing to collapse under their own weight. After a spirited rendition of “Rearviewmirror” to close the set, the band tosses in some lighter fare during the encore, including “Last Kiss” (a cover of a 1964 hit by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers), and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” an almost forgotten gem from Vs. The final number, the Zeppelinesque “Yellow Ledbetter,” is perhaps the most inspiring. Somehow Vedder is able to emit that odd sense of longing during the chorus just as he does on the record (“Round the front way / And I know, and I know / I don’t wanna stay”), and you just know the Italian youth are singing it all the way out of the 20,000 seat amphitheater, just as U2 fans used to sing “40.”
Of course, that’s only how the Verona CD ends. There are 24 more to choose from.