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Pearl Jam Twenty: A Review

As Pearl Jam Twenty peels back the old footage and interviews, one thing is clear from the band’s early days: Eddie Vedder is an intense and volatile personality who is constantly at odds with his own band, his vision of what rock and roll should be, and his own audience. . Lead guitarist Mike McCready explains that Vedder wanted Pearl Jam to be like Fugazi and other underground punk bands, “and while we like those bands, we didn’t want to be them.”

Vedder’s war with his image as something of a spokesman for Generation X is nothing new to those who grew up listening to the band’s first two albums – Vs and Ten. The decision to scale back and do things on their own terms is a storied affair. Whatever you think of Vedder’ disposition to stardom (and there are instances in the movie where you could make the case that he was a complete dick), Pearl Jam Twenty proves that in the end, despite all the odds, somehow Pearl Jam persevered. And just like their hero, Neil Young they managed to garner respect because they said “no” to anything that they felt could possibly strangle them.

As a rock and roll documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty ranks up there with some of the best. Crowe’s use of archival footage from early live shows proves what a great live band Pearl Jam was even in the early days. While Pearl Jam Twenty is mostly chronological in its storytelling, some aspects of the band are distilled into montages. The history of drummers is given a quick (and amusing) overview. Similarly, Pearl Jam’s politics are anchored by a 2003 performance of “Bu$hleaguer” where the band actually got booed.

Because Crowe is accomplished as both a director and music journalist, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions. In turn, the usually shy band members open up. Guitarist Stone Gossard admits to feeling bitterness towards Vedder in the early years, as he lost control of his own band to the singer. McCready talks candidly about his addictions. As for Vedder himself, the 2011 version is humble and careful with his words. As evident from recent live performances, the intensity is still there – but now it seems reserved for the shows.

For all of the anger and intensity associated with the band, there are some hilarious moments in Pearl Jam Twenty. At one point, Crowe asks Gossard if he has any Pearl Jam memorabilia. Gossard sheepishly admits that he doesn’t really have anything, because bassist Jeff Ament is the band’s resident collector. Gossard points to some DVDs and CDs – which he has in case he forgets how to play a song – and then pulls out an extremely dirty PJ mug which looks like it hasn’t been washed in years. The band’s drunken performance for the premiere of 1992’s Singles (which Crowe directed and Gossard and Vedder appeared in) is wildly entertaining. The drunkenness is evident in Vedder’s eyes as he grumbles, “everybody loves us!” He then proceeds to tear down a curtain on the side of the stage as the band tears through a sloppy version of “State of Love and Trust”.

Pearl Jam Twenty makes a great case for how Pearl Jam has turned into one of rock’s greatest bands. That much is evident if you’ve ever seen one of their shows or listened to their albums (even the post Vitalogy ones are great). However, Crowe seems to hammer that it into the ground a little too much by incorporating clips from Don’t Look Back, and The Kids Are Alright. At one point, even Vedder shows off pictures of himself with Joe Strummer, and Pete Townshend. As a fan of rock and roll, there’s no doubt that Vedder still thinks of himself as a kid who got lucky enough to meet his heroes. But underneath, both Crowe and Vedder still seem to want to tell everyone who left the band in the mid-90s: “these guys love us, so should you.”

As a portrait of a band, Pearl Jam Twenty is a rare feat. This is the story of 4 guys, whose wild different personalities conflicted with each other, and still managed to have their integrity. Varying set lists rewards the fans that stuck around – Gossard refers to this as “a gift” – and the belief that rock and roll can be salvation. Twenty years on, Pearl Jam finally get to be the band they always wanted to be.

 

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5 Rarity/Unreleased Collections

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series 1-3


The Basement Tapes had already proved that Dylan had a tendency to leave some of his best material in the vaults – which I’m not including because I could write an entire post on the subject.  This is certainly true on this first installment of his famous Bootleg Series. “She’s Your Lover Now”, “Talking John Birch Society Blues” rank among with some of his work from the 1960s.  Elsewhere, “Blind Willie McTell“, “Foot of Pride”, and “Series of Dreams”  show that no one could write a song like Dylan, despite decent but not earth-shattering albums such as Infidels and Oh Mercy. But for me, the real revelations comes from alternate versions of familiar songs.   The original version of “Tangled Up in Blue” opens up like a novel becomes even more poignant and devastating than the original.  “Idiot Wind” loses some of its bite from the scathing version found on Blood on the Tracks, but the sting is worse.  Dylan seemed more wounded here than the possessed.  “If Not For You” gets some extra help from George Harrison – who would later take this arrangement for his own cover of the song on All Things Must Pass. Many artists would kill to have songs Dylan just seems to leave on the cutting-floor.  And this isn’t even my favorite installment of the Bootleg Series – that would go to Volume 8 – Tell Tale Signs.

The WhoOdds & Sods


I admit to not having listened to Odds & Sods in a few years until the other day since I’ve come out of my Who-phase.  This was one of the first of these collections that I bought.  In high school, I was obsessed with The Who – they’re the perfect soundtrack for teenage angst.  The original material is interesting and worthwhile for Who fanatics.  The kid’s story of “Little Billy” is a  anti-smoking ditty with some of Keith Moon’s best drumming.  The Lifehouse center-piece “Pure and Easy” has border-line pretentious existentialist lyrics, which is saved bv the music which contains some of the Who’s best 1970s harmonies and a pretty awesome fade-out.  But the real highlight of the set comes from the early R&B covers including frenzied versions of “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Leaving Here”.  With these versions The Who rightfully secure their infamous “maximum R&B” tag.

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise


I don’t have Tracks, so I can’t comment on that particular set.  But The Promise, unlike a lot of similar collections is a full-realized work albeit in different ways then its spawn, Darkness on the Edge of Town.  While there is some of the bleakness on The Promise (particularly the title track) many of the songs show Springsteen’s affection for early rock and roll and pop songs from the 1960s.  The backing vocals on “Gotta Get That Feeing” recall some of the early Phil Spector singles.  “Wrong of the Side Street” is rocking fun in the best possible E-Street Band way.  The inclusion of Springsteen’s version of “Fire” and “Because the Night” are a nice addition, but Patti Smith’s version of the latter remains the definitive version.  What is most interesting about The Promise though is that Springsteen ditched some of his most accessible work here in favor of the more challenging songs found on Darkness. What would his stature be like if he had released some of these songs between Born to Run and Darkness?  It’s hard to say.

Pearl Jam – Lost Dogs


Lost Dogs is a collection that won’t bring any converts to Pearl Jam.  But it does contain some stellar material that showcases Pearl Jam taking on a wide variety of styles thats not always apparent on their proper albums.  The Howard Zinn inspired “Down” is one of their catchiest songs.  “Alone” is Ten-style rocker that should have replaced “Deep”.  Surprisingly for Pearl Jam there are a lot of songs that are pure fun.  Guitarist Stone Gossard takes lead vocals for the crunchy rocker “Don’t Gimme No Lip” which has very few words outside of the title.  “Whale Song” contains some cool guitar effects to recreate the sound of whale calls.  And then there’s “Dirty Frank” a ridiculous ode to one of their bus drivers.

R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office


By no means a great collection and Peter Buck admits as much in the liner notes.  But I have a soft spot for this collection since it was one of the first ones of these I owned and it introduced me to the Velvet Underground with three covers – “Femme Fatale”, “There She Goes Again” and “Pale Blue Eyes“.   Like Lost Dogs, R.E.M. show their playful side here with the surf inspired “White Tornado”, and the hilarious “Seven Chinese Brothers” alternate take, “Voice Of Herald” which finds Michael Stipe singing lyrics off of an old Christian LP.  A must!  Worth having because the CD version contains their first LP Chronic Town.

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