Pearl Jam’s Long Road and Live Albums with Steven Hyden

Author and music critic Steven Hyden has written a number of terrific rock books: Your Favorite Band is Killing Me which looks at the rivalries between bands and pop stars, the in-depth look at the death of classic rock Twilight of the Gods, the Radiohead analysis This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, and his newest publication Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation. While each of the books offers thorough analysis, they each read like the best kinds of dorm room conversations, full of asides, personal anecdotes and deep connections.

In Long Road, Hyden gives almost an autobiographical history of Pearl Jam from the fan’s perspective, from the early albums, to their shying away from the spotlight, through their embrace of playing unforgettable live shows in front of their increasingly fanatical fanbase. We got a chance to talk with him about the band’s decision to release a staggering number of live shows from their 2000 tour, what makes a band jam, and where live albums fit into a musician’s discography.

Pearl Jam Live Albums

AllMusic: In your book Long Road, you devote a good section of a chapter on the 72 live albums that Pearl Jam released almost as “Official Bootlegs” from the Binaural tour. These came out shortly after I was hired at AllMusic and, as a longtime fan, I took it upon myself to try to review all of them. I can’t tell if the lead editor thought I was insane or if he was glad to not have to find 72 people to write about each one. I petered out after maybe 45 albums, but along the way it was fascinating to listen to the differences between each show… which shows had high energy and which ones felt more like going through the motions.

You wrote that you started collecting them later as they started showing up in used bins for a couple bucks apiece. What made you want to explore this daunting series of live albums?

Steven Hyden: Well, it’s interesting with Pearl Jam because they often get compared to the Grateful Dead in terms of the fanaticism of the following, and the reason why they ended up releasing all of these bootlegs from that tour is that Pearl Jam was already a very bootlegged band from pretty early on, and it was concerts it would also be lesser-known songs or songs that were on compilations that weren’t easily available. And again, this being the nineties, you couldn’t just go on the internet and look it up on YouTube. I have bootlegs that have like “State of Love and Trust” and “Breath” on them, which are on the Singles soundtrack — Not exactly an obscure record, but maybe people didn’t wanna buy that record and they wanted those songs, so they would buy the Pearl Jam bootleg disc. And back in those days if you saw a Pearl Jam bootleg (or any bootleg) in a record store, it was often 25, 30 bucks, and you usually had no way of knowing, until you got home, if it sounded good at all.

Sometimes it would sound really good if it was a show taped off the radio. One of the more famous bootlegs from like the mid-nineties is their Soldier Field show from ’95, and that was broadcast on the radio. I have that bootleg and it sounds pretty good cause it’s on the radio but it doesn’t sound as good as the bootlegs that Pearl Jam put out themselves, but it sounds pretty good for a bootleg. I think Pearl Jam felt that if people obviously want recordings of our live shows, why don’t we put them out ourselves? They’ll be good recordings and we’ll price them… I think they were priced at like $10, right? $15? So for a bootleg, very inexpensive.

I am curious how many people did what you did — listen to all of them. I know that there are crazy devoted fans who did that, and I imagine that a lot of people would buy the show that they went to, so they could have a memento, which I think is a pretty cool thing.

It’s funny because I think at the time this was viewed with some degree of skepticism or cynicism from non-fans. I write about this in the book, but there was an interview that Jeff Ament did with the San Francisco Chronicle where the angle of the interview was basically like, “Why are you ripping off your fans by selling them all this stuff?” I think some people felt that they were like taking advantage of their fans, that your fans will buy anything.

You look back on it now and we live in a world now where there’s things like where there are a lot of bands, including Pearl Jam, who put their shows up on that app and people pay a subscription fee to hear all of these concerts, and that’s just something that’s accepted now. Obviously that’s big in the jam world, but you’re also starting to see other rock bands embrace that because, there are a lot of devoted fans out there who want to hear every show, and Pearl Jam is certainly an example of that.

If there had been a site like Nugs in 2000, I’m sure Pearl Jam would’ve just gone that route. It would’ve been a lot easier, but the technology didn’t exist. They were ahead of their time so much that they had to rely on CDs, but CDs obviously for most people would become technologically obsolete.

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AllMusic: What connections or insights did you glean from listening to the live shows?

Hyden: It is different than following a band like The Grateful Dead or Phish in that Pearl Jam doesn’t radically alter their performances. There’s some songs where Mike McCready has space to stretch out, and usually it’s Mike McCready that is bringing the improvisational element to Pearl Jam. Although on that 2000 tour, there were examples of them doing these improv songs where they would just make up a song on the spot, which is something that not even jam bands do, you know? That’s a pretty unique thing to Pearl Jam.

I have a lot of friends who are into jam bands and they’ll ask me like, “Why do you listen to all these Pearl Jam shows?” and it really is an instance of you get out what you put into it that. This is true of anything. The more attention you give something, the more you’re gonna take from it. And with Pearl Jam, I think as much as the music you’re hearing, a lot of times with these bootlegs the the sound of the room and the documentary aspect of it is something that I find really interesting. If you want to know what it was like to see Pearl Jam in Paris in 1992, you can listen to this bootleg and you can hear the small differences in how the songs are played. You can hear the stage patter, you get a sense of what the crowd was like.

It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t care (or might think it’s crazy) to listen to all these shows, but the analogy I make is that it’s like following a baseball team. I think the reason why people who like baseball, like baseball is because unlike something like football, you’re watching this team three or four days a week. You feel like you get to know the members of the team and there’s an intimacy that’s established when you are just immersing yourself in this in this team or this band so much. And I think there’s a similar thing with Pearl Jam and following a tour like that. It creates an intimacy that goes beyond even just obsessively listening to albums. I feel like I got to know Pearl Jam better from listening to all those shows. I feel like I understood what was good about them and what didn’t work, and how they changed and how they improved by listening to all those shows. It just put me in closer proximity to what they were doing.

AllMusic: Yeah, I can see that corollary. You watch a team and, similar to live shows, there nights when the team isn’t gelling and the ball goes through the shortstop’s legs or something like that. Or Stone Gossard flubs a note. And then at the same time there nights where they’re just on fire and they turn great double plays and win in a walk-off.

Hyden: And the thing too is that unlike a baseball team, that when a band screws up sometimes, that’s your favorite thing, you know? There’s a show early in the European tour where Matt Cameron’s having technical issues…like his drum breaks or something in the middle of the song and they’re waiting for the drums to get fixed and they have to play a couple songs without drums. That is technically a failure, but it makes that show special to me. It’s like, wow, this is a unique little cool thing that happened there.

AllMusic: You see a little bit behind the curtain too, as these aren’t the songs that you’re hearing on the radio. These are guys playing together and something falls apart so they’ve gotta make choices.

AllMusic: One of my best friends is a great drummer and he talks about playing his band’s basement tape recordings for a friend in his Ford Escort. After she listened to the recording she asked “Is this a song? Or just Music?”

It has become a great inside joke but in essence we think she was asking “Is this a meticulously-written and crafted isolated work with a structure, a beginning, a bridge, and an end? Or is this a brave exploration of time and space using our earthbound bodies and musical essences as vessels for this message?” Or maybe she thought it was a rambling and nonsensical piece of noise.

In the book you talk about the concept of Type I Jams (Noodling or vamping over an established chord progression/key) and Type II Jams (Breaking away from the song structure and venturing out into improvised chord progressions, keys and rhythms). Like you said, Pearl Jam dabbled a little bit in Type I Jams on some of the live shows, but rarely, if ever, evolved into Type II Jams.

Especially with you having one foot in the kind of Pearl Jam/Bruce Springsteen kind of “song structure/message” bands, and then also your interest in Phish and the Dead: Can a songwriting focused band ever become a Type II jam band, like an Umphrey’s McGee or a Phish or something like that.

Hyden: You could argue that the Grateful Dead wrote great songs and also were a jam band. There’s a lot of songs in their catalog that you could just play an acoustic guitar and you wouldn’t need to have a nine minute instrumental section right in the middle. So yeah, I think it’s possible.

That story you were telling me, it reminds me that there’s a Bruce Springsteen quote, and this isn’t it exactly, but he talked about the difference between making music and making records. He was talking in reference to Nebraska that this was him making music, but later on he realized it was a record. I brought that up recently in reference to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot boxed set that just came out because there’s a lot of music on that boxed set that I love, even though I recognize it wouldn’t have belonged on the record. It was them exploring the music. But I think I’ve realized that I love the music more than the record, as much as I love the record. I love hearing them just take these songs in so many different directions. It’s so fascinating to listen to, and you could maybe make a similar comparison to Pearl Jam on record versus Pearl Jam Live.

I would definitely say that I prefer Pearl Jam live to them on record. I wrote this in the book and I tried to qualify it because I do like a lot of Pearl Jam albums… I think that they’ve made some classic albums, but I don’t think that they know how to make an album. I think their albums, especially in the nineties, were good: They had so much energy at that time and they were essentially recording live, especially on Vs. and Vitology and No Code. But in terms of crafting a record the way, say, Stone Temple Pilots did, I think Stone Temple pilots in a way were better at making records, even though I don’t think that they were as good of a band.

I think Stone Temple Pilots were less afraid of the pop element of what they did and I think with Pearl Jam, there was an aversion to that. Even a song like “Betterman,” which is such an obvious pop song, the obviousness of it is what prevented Eddie Vedder wanting to put that on a Pearl Jam record. And the funniest thing about that song is that, he pushed to make the first half of that song quiet because he felt like it would make it less radio friendly when in fact it did the opposite. Because of the way that song builds, it just turns it into a singalong. It turns it into this uplifting track that it just jumps out of radio in a way that it wouldn’t have if it just had the drums on it from the beginning. You could hear versions of that and it’s not nearly as effective.

AllMusic: I like that you brought up Wilco who may be a textbook example of that evolution. If you think about the guys who wrote “Casino Queen” and “Passenger Side,” and then went on to record A Ghost Is Born within a decade of each other. Wilco is somebody that have a similar trajectory to Pearl Jam in that they went from crafting these “records,” like you said, to kind of more and more of making “music” in the broader term. And their live shows can be completely unexpected with that same kind of evolution that Pearl Jam has.

Hyden: Again, I’d go back to the Grateful Dead. I like a lot of Phish songs, but it’s obviously not the same as the Dead, where they don’t have as many songs that pass the acoustic guitar test…where it’s just the song and there’s no other instrumentation going on. I don’t think the Phish songs work quite as effectively, those devolve.

AllMusic: As an archival research site, we try to help users find albums within an artist’s discography and we break them into what we consider to be Main Albums, Compilations (which ends up being more like any full-length album that isn’t a core part of the band’s main album output), and then things like Singles and EPs, Videos and “Other” (which is usually like interview discs and bootlegs, etc).

Live albums usually end up in the second bucket of Compilations, partially because they are usually a collection of songs from different eras but also so they don’t clutter up the main albums section of the discography (the Pearl Jam live releases are a good example), but there are some albums like The Who’s Live at Leeds or Kiss Alive! or Cheap Trick At Budokan that end up transcending the “let’s fulfill our contract by putting out a live record” type of throwaway releases.

Where do you feel live albums fit into an artist’s discography?

Hyden: I like live albums more than the average person.

My friend Ian Cohen, who I do Indiecast with, I don’t think he has any interest in live albums whatsoever. But I tend to like live albums, even ones that aren’t that great because of the documentary aspect that I was talking about before. I’ve been listening to Secret World Live a lot lately, the Peter Gabriel live record from 1994, which I believe got a star-and-a-half from All Music Guide. I looked it up. Way too low. Along with just how more epic that those songs sound live, I love imagining a Peter Gabriel show in 1994. I mean, I don’t have to imagine it, there’s an actual concert film of it, so I could just watch it. But I love the atmosphere that exists in the background of a live recording, even on an official live album where it gets cleaned up or it’s not even a whole show, it’s a compilation of different performances. So I would probably include live albums in more discographies than a lot of people would.

AllMusic: It’s always interesting when one of those live albums does manage to push its way into the core catalog of the band.

Hyden: The ones that you mentioned, they’re obviously hugely important in those band’s careers. In the case of the Who and Cheap Trick, for all the great albums that they put out, I would say that their live record might be the definitive album. If I was trying to turn somebody on to those groups, I might reach for the live album first. Especially a lot of those seventies rock bands where the famous songs are so overplayed that you can’t really appreciate what they are. Sometimes slipping in a live record is a way of humanizing that band or showing them in a less sort of obvious context.

Whenever there’s a new Jimi Hendrix live album, I always buy it because his studio records, as brilliant as they are, there’s not that many of them. So if you have loved Jimi Hendrix for like 30 years since you were a teenager, it’s hard for Are You Experienced to still sound fresh. I’ll definitely buy a live record that Jimi Hendrix recorded in Maui a few months before he died where he’s just playing really long jams and occasionally going into a song. That’s a Way of Jimi Hendrix sounding fresh again. Is the Maui live record an essential Jimi Hendrix album? Probably not. But in a way it’s more fun to listen to than the canonical albums that we all know and love and have probably played to death by now.

I think another recent example of that is the the recent CCR live album at Albert Hall. CCR being another example of a band who is brilliant, but has a relatively small discography that we all know by heart. Now you get to hear them in their prime just playing those same songs ferociously in front of an audience. It does make those songs sound fresh again, because it’s not the same old recordings, which again, are brilliant. I actually like the Live at Woodstock record even more than the Royal Albert Hall because I think you can tell that John Fogerty hated being there and there’s an energy and an anger to that performance that is exhilarating.

AllMusic: That’s maybe the opposite of the Matt Cameron drum breaking, where the band has to come together and overcome this adversity. This is John Fogerty trying to overcome his own frustration and anger at the audience or the situation.

Hyden: Yeah. you just listen to them play “Keep on Chooglin'” and they’re like the Velvet Underground playing “Sister Ray.” I mean, it’s just furious proto-punk energy. Yeah. And they’re just trying to like melt hippie minds all over the place.

AllMusic: Right. And I think they probably succeeded. I don’t think we’re gonna get any better than talking about chooglin’, so thanks for talking with us.

Hyden: Anytime I can work chooglin’ into an interview, I’m happy.

Steven Hyden is the author of several music books including the recently released Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation.

Long Road: Pearl Jam

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