A little over month on from the tragedy at the 2000 Roskilde Festival, Pearl Jam returned to the stage as the North American leg of their Binaural tour got under way. In a hotel room ahead of the first post-Roskilde show in Virginia, Vedder wrote a song called ‘I Am Mine’ to “reassure myself that this is going to be all right”.
It’s a Pearl Jam playing to its strengths song – strong hook and melody with affirming lyrics. As Mike McCready says: “It’s kind of a positive affirmation of what to do with one’s life. I’m born and I die, but in between that, I can do whatever I want or have a strong opinion about someting.”
The tour – which would include a Tenth Anniversary show in Las Vegas featuring the debut of Vedder’s take on Mother Love Bone’s ‘Crown of Thorns’ – would wind down back in Seattle in November. The Binauarl tour also saw the commencement of Pearl Jam’s on-going Bootleg series – every show (with the exception of Roskilde) would be recorded and released as “official bootlegs” in a move designed to prevent fans being fleeced for inferior recordings of their shows. It’s move that’s since been taken up my many an artist. Instead of going back to work on a new album, Pearl Jam took a year off.
2001 saw Vedder join a list of musicians in playing five shows with Neil Finn (later captured on the worth-checking-out Seven Worlds Collide), Matt Cameron’s Wellwater Conspiracy release its third album and Stone Gossard break cover as the first member of Pearl Jam to put out a solo album under their own name. Bayleaf was released on September 11th, Gossard was in New York doing press for it when to hikacked airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center.
When Pearl Jam returned to action in 2002 the world had changed both internally and externally. The band wanted to address these themes in their music even if “Universal themes aren’t easy to come up with when you’re just a guy and a typewriter and a guitar.” In the aptly named Riot Act they would do their damndest and created a record full of great tunes that received barely any attention even amongst Pearl Jam fans. I know many a fan who can cite every lyric on Vitalogy but wouldn’t know a word of ‘Green Disease’ and it’s a real shame as there’s a direct line between the two.
Riot Act is an album that clearly benefits from having five songwriters with strong contributions from all. Vedder had returned from his place in Hawaii with both a mohawk (which worked perfectly for his induciton of the Ramones into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame*) and a new band member – Boom Gasper – with whom, on their first night of playing together he had written ‘Love Boat Captain’.
For my money the Adam Kasper produced Riot Act is a stronger album than Binaural. It’s tougher, it’s heavier with hook and Vedder is clearly pissed off. Take ‘Green Disease’ – a propulsive, guitar driven rocker that would’nt have been out of place on Vitalogy that tackles the culture of greed. Or ‘Can’t Keep’ – a tune that Vedder bought in as a ukelele demo that became a multi-layered slow burner with buzzing guitars that brings back memories of No Code while the punk-edged ‘Save You’ is thrashed along on a Mike McCready riff while Eddie Vedder sings of the anger felt watching a loved one losing themselves to addiction.
For me other highlights are ‘Bu$hleaguer’, ‘You Are’ and Vedder’s ‘Thumbing My Way’. It’s a clear signpost to where Ed was heading as a songwriter and mark the acoustic-driven direction that would come to fruition on the Into The Wild soundtrack and songs on Backspacer and Lightning Bolt that would allow the songwriter the confidence to be direct and open in his lyrics. Stone Gossard feels the song is his bandmate “getting into an acoustic singer-songwriter thing in a way that you always knew that he could. ”
‘You Are‘ is one of the strangest sounding songs Pearl Jam have put to tape. A really different vibe that was born out of expirmenting with a new drum machine that Matt Cameron had gotten hold of, it’s another great example of the band taking one member’s ideas and creating something memorable.**
The reception to Riot Act wasn’t that positive when it dropped in November 2002. Press was less than luke-warm and sales weren’t strong. Without a radio-friendly ‘hit’ airplay for those songs released as singles was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Nonetheless, in 2003 the band headed out onto the road for the first time in close to three years. With setlists that changed nightly and made use of their extensive back catalogue and covers repetoire, the tour was a success by any measure but, for the first time, saw the band court contreversy and receive more than a few boos thanks to the inclusion of ‘Bu$hleageur’. I’ve covered this before but it’s a noteable – this dark, weaving satirical swipe at George W Bush drew negative reponses and walkouts through the tour (seriousy – did you think Pearl Jam were fucking Republicans who like blind marching to war?) but it reached a head at the Nassau Coliseaum in Uniondale:
Jeff Ament: “I was totally fine with it. I was ready to go out and open up with that fucking song every night I wasn’t going to be a part of something and then take it back. We recorded the song and put it on a record, and that’s how we felt.”
Riot Act was Pearl Jam’s last studio album for Epic Records. They rounded out 2003 with the release of Lost Dogs – a compilation of b-sides that featured many fan favourites and strong songs from the era covered in these posts such as ‘Down‘ and ‘Otherside’ – as part of their contractual obligations.
In 2004 Pearl Jam joined the VoteFor Change Tour in support of John Kerry. Live At Benoraya Hall, a mainly acoustic (thankfully McCready doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo and bought his full arsenal) set recorded the previous year was released in July and features songs from Binaural and Riot Act sitting alongside deeper cuts and ‘hits’. In this setting these songs shine and their place in Pearl Jam’s back catalogue feel established rather than those of albums that are outliers in the discorapthy as they’re so often regarded.
The final release of this period for Pearl Jam was, fittingly, a summary; the obligatory (again likely contractual) Greatest Hits. A neat little package that rounded up the rockers and the ballads in an Up disc and a Down disc with some tasty remastering of Ten tracks by Brendan O’Brien. It’s a solid compilation and I’ll still drop it in the car fairly regularly – but started a trend that continues to this day much to the chagrin of many a fan; the cropping of images to remove Dave Abbruzzesse from the picture.
2005 saw the band break the album-tour-album-tour cycle and head out for a tour without new music to promote. Just getting out and playing to audiences for the fun of it. It was a master stroke. While work was underway on the album that would become 2006’s Pearl Jam (then the longest period between albums), Pearl Jam are one of the greatest live bands still actively playing and while radio interest and sales may never recover from the 2000-2005 lull and changing mainstream, as long as they continue to put out albums of strong songs that delight live they’ll be relevent to a very sizeable audience.
I’ll finish here with the ‘new’ song on Benoroya and Greatest Hits. Written for Tim Burton’s ‘Big Fish’ it was a pretty moving song in its orginal context but after personal events last year I can’t listen to it without getting a little moist in the eye. That’s got to be the sign of a good song if it’s that affecting and from 2000 – 2005 Pearl Jam wrote a shit load of good songs.
*Vedder, clearly drunk, doesn’t give a fuck. In a speech that’s just brilliant he rags on Disney and tells the crowd to fuck themselves. I can’t recall where but someone said when Jann Wenner dies his afterlife will consist of being stuck in the audience for eternity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Oi-SKOqVHA
** ‘The Fixer’, Pearl Jam’s most instantly accessible and lyrically direct song from Backspacer is another example of a Matt Cameron riff becomming something else in the band’s hands.