Faith will be rewarded: Bruce Springsteen – Madison Square Garden, New York 2000

“The floor was a mass of smiles and swaying bodies, and as I watched, I thought ‘I can do this. I can bring this, this happiness, these smiles.’ I went home and called the E Street Band.”

Back when the music press was writing it up and even when I bought the live album that documented it – Live in New York City – I didn’t really understand just how big a deal Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Reunion Tour was.  I’d only really been listening Bruce for a few years at that point and was by no means a decades-long fan.

I was actually one of the generation of fans that made Bruce realise it was time to get the band back together again after a “two young kids” introduced themselves to him outside a pizza joint and expressed their dismay at having never seen the E Street Band live “I started realizing there was a sea of young people out there who never saw the greatest thing I did: PLAY LIVE… with the E Street Band”.

Here we are in 2018 – with a number of studio albums completed with E Street Band tours and shows further on and it’s clear how important that Reunion Tour was. For the decade leading up to it had been filled with two tours from Bruce. One with ‘The Other Band’ in support of Human Touch/Lucky Town and what became known as the ‘Shut The Fuck Up’ Tour for Ghost of Tom Joad. So when Bruce took to the stage with a full E Street Band in 1999 many, including the band themselves, weren’t sure how long it would last.

It had been 11 long years since the end of the Tunnel of Love tour and Steven Van Zandt hadn’t toured with the band since 1981. Questions abounded: was it a one-off? Was it just a nostalgia tour? Was there anything left in the tank? Would this be the start of a new chapter?

By the time the Reunion Tour reached New York in June 2000 for it’s grand finale – a ten-night, sold-out stand at Madison Square Garden – all of those questions had been answered. The E Street Band was firing on all cylinders, tighter than a duck’s arse and clearly a force to be reckoned with now and into the future. The set contained a healthy mix of classic ‘Jersey greaseball’ and ‘Mega’ Bruce along with a selection of Tracks‘ most euphoric moments and new songs to boot.

Songs from June 29th and July 1st would be chopped up and spliced into the ‘live’ album Live in New York City. Back in my Least to Most on Bruce I mentioned how this album suffered from “strange sequencing and fading out”. I stand by that. Until recently a real document of that tour and its closing stand has not been available. But, as Bruce and others, continue to use that weird old ‘Nugs’ service and release more individual shows to the public, I’ve added (thanks to Black Friday the best $4 I’ve spent) Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 1, 2000 to my collection and, let me tell you now: it’s fucking awesome.

Hearing the show from start to end, in full and uninterrupted is a new experience that highlights just how vital and powerful a performance it was. It would be a few tours before Bruce started abandoning setlists and taking requests so those core songs that it revolved around – ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘Two Hearts’, ‘The Promised Land’, the fiery recasting of ‘Youngstown’ leading into ‘Murder Incorporated’ are all here as per Live in NYC but still fantastic and exuberant in their performance.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that now, with the benefit of understanding the band’s history, hearing the Van Zandt spotlighting ‘Two Hearts’ is even more rewarding.

There’s a stunning take on ‘Lost in the Flood’ which – it turns out – was the first time this one had been tackled since the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. Tracks favourite ‘The Promise’ is met with a near-orgasmic reaction from the crowd after every verse and chorus and the guaranteed crowd pleasers ‘Badlands’, ‘Backstreets’ both ‘Born’s – though the USA in a heavily stripped-back slide-blues version closer to the take on Tracks delight as they always do. Given that Bruce almost cut all the classics from the set, wanted to stick more closely to Tracks material, makes you more grateful for Landau’s sage wisdom in guiding him toward doing what he does best. There’s also the introduction of Bruce as ‘rock and roll televangelist’ as he promises salvation though the power of rock and roll. Yes, it’s rehearsed and probably didn’t change night to night, but the band and the performances are so tight you can’t help but get caught up in it.

The sound of the band had changed too as this tour marked the point at which the guitars became more dominant. With both Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren in the mix now alongside Springsteen’s own teak-like tone and Patti Scialfa adding an extra rhythm the band shifted to a four-guitar attack which, when coupled with the power of Max Weinberg, makes this era sound so much heavier and more powerful than takes on previous live recordings. It fucking kicks.

But it’s the stuff that, for some bizarre reason, was left off that record that really shines a new light on these concerts. Springsteen chose to open this show with a new song – the Joe Grushecky co-penned ‘Code of Silence’  and dropped a pre-The Rising version of ‘Further On Up The Road’ later into the set. Of course, two other new songs were featured on Live in New York City and also feature here but there placing in the setlist is more natural. Tour anthem and ‘theme’ song ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ is the penultimate song while ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ came earlier on in the night than that album would lead you to believe. It’s one of Bruce’s finest and made for performing live -which is probably why it’s never been done justice in the studio – because it’s the reaction, the silence as attention is given then the cheers that greet this song and it’s meaning are always worth listening to:

‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ , with it’s message of inclusion and moving forward as one, had been played every night of the tour, usually the set closer. As he introduces the song here, Bruce says that he was “hoping that our tour would be the rebirth and the renewal of our band and of our commitment to serve you. I hope we’ve done that well this year and we´ll continue to try and do so…”

This show does’t end with ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ though. Bruce saved the best for last. For the first time, the band would play ‘Blood Brothers.’ It’s a powerful and moving rendition and Bruce adds a new verse for the occasion and you can hear his voice break with tears. Unrehearsed and impromptu, he calls the band to stand with him and join hands as he sings these new words, in the video that was taken you can see Clarence wasn’t paying attention – he’s caught up in the emotion – and needs to be beckoned, It’s the perfect closer to the tour.

After a twenty-eight song set, packed with much crowd banter and preaching the band leave with a simple “we’ll be seeing ya”. They would be, even if that wasn’t 100% at that point, and would drop many a classic show propelled by great, stadium-ready new songs, but the sheer rediscovery of their power as a band, the promise of that which could lay ahead and the celebration of what they had accomplished make Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 1, 2000 an essential live album for fans and one that I know will be in frequent rotation for a while to come.

 

You don’t know Jack…

So there’s this thing that I’m sure can’t be unique to me and I really hope that someone reading this will confirm but: you know how you can initially be pretty into an artist / group only to lose interest completely then, years later, rediscover and wonder why the hell you dropped out?

One of those artists that fit in this category for me is Jack Johnson. Some time back in 2003/4 someone recommended I check out this dude who plays some pretty chill, cool stuff. Which I did and I quite enjoyed the two albums that Jack had then put out: Brushfire Fairytales and On and On. They had a nice laid back feel and some good acoustic guitar playing pushing some catchy lyrics and nice ideas. Felt like there was a promise of something better to come..

Come album  three, though, everybody and their radio playlist programming brother seemed to catch the Jack Johnson wave and you couldn’t turn the radio dial without hearing “I hope this old train break downs”. Then he went and made a soundtrack album for some film about a cartoon monkey and with my tastes at the time moving toward the heavier… I tuned out.

Cut to later… a decade-plus later in fact, and it turns out that cartoon monkey is a Curious one called George and my young son loves the film and keeps singing the songs from the soundtrack. So, being who I am I download the thing so we can listen to it in the car (it makes a nice change from The Muppets soundtrack ad naseum) and, what do you know, it actually floats my boat too. So I figure it’s time to see what else Jack had been up to since I tuned out. And, bugger; I find a lot that I dig in his last few albums. So much so, in fact, that they’re on quite a bit these days.

There’s no new ground being broken by Mr Johnson; he’s a retired-competitive surfer (he was the youngest surfer invited to the Pipe Masters but a pretty harsh accident a week later split his head open and ko’d his surf career) who still lives in Hawaii so he’s not about to bust out an OK Computer. Something of a renaissance man and very much active in environmentalism especially, appropriately enough, with a focus on the oceans. Jack Johnson delivers predominantly acoustic based tunes though increasingly embellished with electric guitars and organ with what Rolling Stone have summarised as a ‘Zen-master delivery and swaying-palm-tree melodic sense.’

Once upon a time.. yeah: that was not where my tastes were at. Now as I get older and mellower… well I’m digging it. The fact that my son now sings along to the tunes with me too, well that’s just the icing.

Oddly enough, during my recent rediscovery of Mr Johnson I found that I shared this awakening to his music with none other than Mr Vedder: “There was a point about two or three years ago when I was with Ben Harper. I said, ‘Okay, Ben, how about you and me chip in and get Jack a distortion pedal?’ And we had a little bit of a laugh, you know? But I thought about that a lot, and that was my fault that I wasn’t getting it. What he’s doing is real. As opposed to him getting a distortion box or opposed to him trying to be something else, it’s real. There are so many positive things that you get from listening to his records or seeing him live. I didn’t get it for a long time, but now I get it.”

I haven’t met Ben Harper, let alone chatted Mr Johnson with him. But I did talk to the same friend who’d initially recommended him to me and he had a more succinct response to my having tuned out so much enjoyable music for so long: “you bloody knob”.

So, to stop being a knob, here’s Five From Jack Johnson that I’ve been enjoying of late:

F-Stop Blues

Taylor

Constellations

The original of this is pretty strong but I wouldn’t be a Pearl Jam fan if I didn’t prefer this version.

To The Sea

I guess somebody did by him a distortion pedal.

Ones and Zeros

 

Current spins

With the Pearl Jam series complete, it feels like as good a time as any to take a look at what else has been going into the old ears of late because, having spent so long on a Pearl Jam bent, I’ve been listening to a shit load of different stuff these last weeks…

Crowded House – Private Universe

It took a while before I got round to it but I’ve been spending a lot of time with the first four Crowded House albums lately and enjoying every track thus far. Their album Together Alone is the standout for me and this song has had a fair few repeats.

Chastity Belt – Different Now

A recent purchase, Chastity Belt’s I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone is a great album that manages to feel like some lost 90’s gem while still sounding fresh and new.

Kurt Vile – Bassackwards

Because it’s one of the two long tracks that new album Bottle It In revolves around and those powder-blue discs have been getting a lot of spins since arriving on my shelves. This – and most of KV’s work – has got such a laid back vibe that you just kinda close your eyes and drift along to. Perfect music to get small to.

Bill Mallonee & The Vigilantes of Love – Resplendent 

This took me a while to get hold of. I heard this on one of those CDs that came free with a magazine some… 18 years ago. I don’t know much about Mr Mallonee but he’s not much about on the likes of Spotify etc so I had to track down a second hand copy of Audible Sigh the album this is from. I’m not usually one for this alt-country but I love a good ‘story’ song and the lyric “’til what you were meets what you’ve now become, grins and says “hey, haven’t we met”

Kate Bush- And Dream of Sheep

Back before she went completely off her rocker and long before she started spouting off about how wonderful that deranged fucktard Theresa May is… Kate Bush made some perfect music. One such example – Hounds of Love: one half the perfect pop album, the other, from which this is, a gorgeous concept suite about a person drifting alone in the sea at night.

And, finally…..

Bruce Springsteen – Racing in the Street ’78 

OK, so I’ve got a BIG BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN POST or 2, or maybe 3 in the making at the moment and so the Boss has been back on heavy spin and this song… this version… fuck but it’s good.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Let the Records Play

Here we are at the end of another (my third to date) Least to Most series.

What’s been learned:

That when I tackle this series on an album by album basis this is a pretty consuming mission when combined with that other thing called ‘life’. And yet I already find myself looking at my shelves and wondering who’s next (it’s not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure).

Pearl Jam are fucking awesome. But then that shouldn’t be a lesson to anyone.

For my money, these blokes were at their finest between 1993-1998.

I still think they have at least one great album in them despite recent evidence.

For those playing along at home, the Least to Most favourite list broke down like this:

10. Backspacer
9. Binaural
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam
5. Ten
4. Yield
3. No Code
2. Vs.
1. Vitalogy

That’s today. Well, that’s how I eventually settled the list (after five drafts). Ask me again in a few months that might change. Ask me again when the next studio album eventually drops and it may be all change again.

For my money, if you want a good single, cover-all bases Pearl Jam album you’ll struggle with just one disc but if you get your hands on the Vs. & Vitalogy re-release box you’ll get two of their best and Live at the Orhpeum Theatre which is a fierce, powerful live disc that captured the band live between the two albums and is packed with cuts from Ten and a few rarities too.

Still, for more of what I’d recommend, and as a tip of the hat to Jim over at Music Enthusiast whose playlists are the stuff of curator envy, here’s my Pearl Jam ‘essentials’ playlist wherein I try and cherry pick the best of the band’s ten studio (and one rarities) albums and still end up with sixty tunes. Play in order or play in random but, hopefully, enjoy:

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – “I’m already cut up and half dead”

Ok – I’m halfway through my run down of Pearl Jam’s ten studio albums so this feels like a suitable place to take a knee and have a look at those albums that bear the band’s name but wouldn’t feature in the list: the live and compilation volumes.

For those who have been playing along at home, those studio albums covered thus far:

10. Backspacer
9. Binaural
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam

Compilations

Now in terms of ‘Best Of’s and ‘Greatest Hits’ type releases this is going to be a real quick and succinct round up: there’s only one. Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991–2003) is a two-disc, contractual requirement, set that splits the band’s output into ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ volumes. I’m not too sure what the criteria for each of these is though as I would’ve pegged ‘Given To Fly’ and ‘Breath’ as being every bit as ‘up’ as ‘Corduroy’ but hey ho. As an introduction to Pearl Jam and for a good go-to in the car it’s pretty ideal and, in amongst the more well known songs are a few surprised inclusions while the presence of ‘Man of the Hour’ and ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ make for a solid compilation. It’s perhaps telling though that the vast bulk of this compilation (all but 5 of the 33 ) – . What’s more of note is that in the 15 years since the period this compilation covers there’s been just 3 studio albums  vs the 7 released in the 12 years it covers. Bloody slackers.

Live

Still, while we, as Pearl Jam fans, are in a relatively barren period for new studio material the band has become one the best live acts still regularly hitting the road and manages near-Springsteen length sets of ever-changing set lists. In the nearly three decades that separate their current tour and their first show at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22, 1990 their show has evolved from tight, intense performances to marathon like sets that run the gamut of tempos and mood with surprises and deep cuts thrown in among those ‘classic’ songs that were once the only songs they had in their repertoire.

So – does one of the most incredible live acts still in the game have a the appropriate incredible live album? Well, no, not really. Since their decision* to put out ‘Official Bootlegs’ of every show since 2000** there are approximately 18,000 live Pearl Jam albums out there….. not quite but almost. The bootlegs are perhaps the only way to get a real, highs, lows, warts and all document of a Pearl Jam show but unless you want to get lost in among them all there’s no real way to identify what will make one better than the other. For my money you can take you pick from any of the band’s 2006 tour and you’ll be hitting gold – peak performance and sets mixed with then-new material, classics and deep cuts.

However, in terms of the general, non-self released  front there’s still a good choice out there. Live on Two Legs was the band’s first such album and captured them on their 1998 tour in support of Yield – it’s probably the best one out there if you’re looking for a single-disc intro to the band I’d recommend it over the Rearviewmirror greatest hits set: there’s no ‘Alive’ or ‘Jeremy’ but you’ll get ‘Red Mosquito’, ‘Untitled’ and a ripping take on Neil Young’s ‘Fuckin’ Up’.

As part of their PJ20 celebrations, the band tried to recapture the success of their first live disc with another general-release live album – Live On Ten Legs. A little less tightly focused, this one compiles performances from their 2003–2010 world tours and, while the band are still undeniably tight and in charge, there’s a little more of a grab-bag feel to this one. The same could also be said of last year’s Let’s Play Two. Released as a ‘live’ album to coincide with the DVD of the same name, this one feels like a real missed opportunity – the band’s shows at Wrigley Field in 2016 had some really strong setlists but here Danny Clinch (who helmed the DVD) seems to have selected the weaker cuts and has structured it in such a way as to lose any real sense of flow or continuity. Still – there’s a great take on ‘Release’ and any show that opens with ‘Low Light’ gets a thumbs up from me.

Of course, if you want to go the full Live/1975–85  route then Live at the Gorge 05/06 – it’s a seven-disc document of the band’s three shows at the venue in 2005 and 2006. There’s a few repeats, of course, but there’s a lot of solid gold here and plenty of deep cuts.

If you want to get a good feel for Pearl Jam live – it’s got to be Live On Two Legs. However – if you’ve  got a little bit more time then you can’t go wrong with Live at Benaroya Hall. This two-disc set was recorded at the end of 2003 is a predominantly acoustic set (though Mike McCready often forgets that) which captures the band in a beautifully intimate setting and is packed with great takes on the well known, the lesser known and a few then-unreleased takes.

Odds and Sods

Pearl Jam’s b-sides were the stuff of legend. I remember, when I first got into the band, discussing songs like ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Hard to Imagine’ like they were lost gems. The band’s b-sides and rarities compilation Lost Dogs dropped in 2003 contains is a pretty decent collection of these. There’s the older classics already mentioned along with ‘Wash’ and ‘Alone’ along with newer cuts saved from the studio floor like ‘Down’ and ‘Otherside’. Those newer cuts – ‘Fatal’ is highlighted as producer Tchad Blake’s favourite from the Binaural sessions – serve more like the missing pieces that could have turned luke-warm albums into scorchers while some – ‘Sweet Lew’ and ‘Gremmie Out of Control’ – feel like padding and are really only for completists. As much as I give this one a regular spin, there’s a single disc’s worth of pure gold here amongst some ‘meh’.

But I’m omitting one thing. For the best of all of these – live cuts, studio solidity and rare deep stuff, one compilation is worth investment: Pearl Jam Twenty. Essentially a soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film of the same name, Pearl Jam Twenty is a great listen. Predominantly a collection of live tunes, it combines more recent recordings with a take on ‘Alive’ from a show in 1990 when the band were still called Mookie Blaylock, a scorching ‘Blood’ from ’95 and early demos for tunes like ‘Nothing as it Seems’ and ‘Given to Fly’ to give a really strong, full-picture document of the band as it rounded off it’s second decade in business and remains on heavy rotation.

*An attempt to provide fans with a lower-priced, higher-quality recording of a show compared to the many bootlegs that were doing the rounds may not sound like the most business-savvy idea but they’ve shifted about 4 million of the things since 2000 – which is about 4 million copies shifted than Riot Act,

**Notable exceptions to the rule include the Roskilde Festival in which nine fans lost their lives.

 

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam

“It’s the same everyday and the wave won’t break
Tell you to pray, while the devil’s on their shoulder”
World Wide Suicide

During the tour for Riot Act Pearl Jam began to take a lot of flack and boos for daring to play ‘Bu$hleaguer’. At Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the reaction was particularly adverse but the band persevered and were emboldened by the reaction. As Jeff Ament said “I actually walked off stage and felt great. That was a brand-new experience. Killer. We got booed standing up for something we wholeheartedly believed in.” So much so, in fact, that Pearl Jam joined Bruce Springsteen, REM and a host of other bands on the Vote for Change Tour in 2004 in support of John Kerry’s Presidential run and, for a brief moment, it looked like the tide may turn against Bush.

However, come November 3, 2004, Vedder “didn’t get out of bed. However, while I couldn’t get myself out of bed, I heard that Springsteen on that day was making a call to someone he makes records with, saying ‘I have to make a record.'” When Vedder and Pearl Jam did get to the studio a few weeks later the tunes came out on fire: ‘Life Wasted’, ‘Comatose’, ‘Severed Hand’ and what would become ‘World Wide Suicide’ all came from the bands first sessions for their eighth studio album.

And yet… while there were a good dozen songs being worked up, it began to be clear to the band that, by early 2005, the album wasn’t on track to be ready by the end of the year.  “I think that came from the guys affording me the extra time to write, and my needing more time to write,” Vedder would later recall. There was also the fact that Vedder had a child during the process. So, for the first time in their history, Pearl Jam broke the album-tour-album-tour cycle and headed out on the road for a series of shows with no new music to promote. Realising that simply playing shows without the onus of promoting an album could prove a lot of fun, the shows from this tour sound like a band at its peak and they’d continue this practice in years to come. “We were separating the touring aspect of the band from the recording process. We could go out, be Pearl Jam, and tour.”

New songs would be debuted – ‘Gone’ was first played in Atlantic City the day after it had been written -and honed as well as written – Mike McCready demoed one of his finest songs, ‘Inside Job,’ on Vedder’s tape machine in South America – during the 2005 tour and the shows from this tour are well worth checking out.

When recording sessions got back under way and the new material began taking shape from the 25 songs written, it became clear that this was a very targeted album with Vedder’s lyrics aimed squarely at voicing his disgust at the Bush administration “through telling stories… an observation of modern reality rather than editorializing, which we’ve seen plenty of these days.”

It also started to look like album eight was turning into that divisive rock staple – A Concept Album. It was only sequencing that prevented it: “We tried one [sequence], and it just absolutely didn’t work. That was the one that told a story…. You could have tied it all in with a bit of narration… It was interesting to think, ‘Severed Hand’ – is that the same kid who ends up being the army reservist?”

When Pearl Jam released their eighth album in May 2006 it didn’t have a title – “In the end, we thought there was enough there with the title of the songs, so to put another title on the album would have seemed pretentious. So, really, it’s actually Nothing by Pearl Jam.” The album that fans would refer to as Avocado* was released on J Records – still a major, Sony-owned label (probably why it’s proven impossible to find videos to embed in this one, those litigious bastards) – and was their second produced by Adam Kasper. It’s their most aggressive, straight-ahead record since Vs, represented something of a comeback in terms of both quality and commercial appeal, launched a tour that I would argue captured the band at their absolute peak and – much like Vote for Change Tour alumni Springsteen’s ‘Bush album’ Magic – is a real late-career gem.

‘Life Wasted’, ‘World Wide Suicide’, ‘Comatose’ and ‘Severed Hand’ make for as hard a hitting opening series of tracks as the band have ever put to tape and bristle with a raw edge and determination that had been missing from the band for a couple of albums at this point. As Gossard said: “It doesn’t sound slick or that we polished it for too long. That’s the main thing, really, politics aside. The song just has some energy in it.”

 

Elsewhere on Pearl Jam, ‘Parachutes’ has a No Code vibe to it and it, along with ‘Come Back’ – the album’s sole ballad -and ‘Gone’ deal with more general, universal themes. Personally I love a huge amount of this album and think it’s the last consistently solid album the band have made to date – there’s not a song here that I’ll skip when playing and I still crank it up loud.

Granted; the diversity that made some of their earlier albums so compelling is missing, but the force and energy that enthuse this baker’s dozen of songs is undeniable. There’s a real ‘classic’ feel to this album and the tour that followed showed just how seamlessly these songs blend with the strongest elements of their back catalogue. Of the many Pearl Jam bootlegs in my collection, a good six or seven are from the 2006 tour and represent some of their finest shows – especially the five shows in Italy that would be captured on the Immagine in Cornice DVD and the Turin concert that featured the new album played through in its entirety.

I remember when Pearl Jam first dropped, having the distinct impression that it would be a ‘grower’. That’s definitely true. In the ten years plus that have passed since its release this album has certainly grown on me with every listen and new details appear with each investigation. I’m not sure why I don’t rank this one higher in the list – perhaps it is the lack of diversity in the sound. Then again: I’ve recently been spinning the 2017 remaster which was remixed by Brendan O’Brien which adds a significant amount of extra heft to the sound… but then I’m basing this on original versions otherwise I’d need to go back to the drawing board.

Highlights: ‘Life Wasted’, ‘World Wide Suicide,’ ‘Severed Hand,’ ‘Army Reserve,’ ‘Inside Job’.

*Mike McCready: “That symbolizes just kind of … Ed’s at the end of the process and said, ‘for all I care right now, we’ve done such a good job on this record, and we’re kind of tired from it. Let’s throw an avocado on the cover.’ I think that’s what happened, and our art director goes, ‘hey, that’s not a bad idea.’ I think we were watching the Super Bowl, and we had some guacamole or something.”

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Riot Act

“Take the reigns, steer us toward the clear…”

A lot can happen in two years. I’ve written on the time between Binaural and Riot Act before but, to summarise: nine fans were killed during the band’s performance at the 2000 Roskilde Festival – an abrupt full stop which found Pearl Jam questioning if they could continue, friend and fellow ‘grunge’ icon Layne Staley died, Eddie Vedder went through a divorce and, external to the band, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Bush administration shifted America’s landscape drastically.

Ahead of their first show following Roskilde, Eddie Vedder sat alone in his hotel room writing a song to “reassure myself that this is going to be all right.” ‘I Am Mine’, as Matt Cameron said, “has all the elements this band is known for: strong lyrics, strong hook, and a good sense of melody. It wasn’t a really tough decision to have that be the starting point for the record.”

Following the Binaural tour cycle, Pearl Jam took a short break – Matt Cameron’s Wellwater Conspiracy dropped it’s third album, Stone Gossard released the first ‘solo’ album from a Pearl Jam member (which he was in New York promoting on 9/11) and Vedder – having played five shows with Neil Finn and other musicians (later captured on the worth-checking-out Seven Worlds Collide) – disappeared off the grid for a year on a remote Hawaiian island where he connected with Boom Gaspar who was playing B3 at a musician’s wake. The two hooked up again a few days later and very quickly wrote an eleven minute tune that would become another key album track, ‘Love Boat Captain’.

When it came time to recording their new album, Pearl Jam chose to do so with Adam Kasper (who’s credits to that point included two albums for Foo Fighters, a Queens of the Stone Age album amongst others) at the suggestion of Matt Cameron as Kasper had also produced Soundgarden’s last album, Down on the Upside.

The resulting album is one of the lost gems in Pearl Jam’s catalogue. Riot Act has still – 16 years on – shifted less copies than Vs did in its first week alone. I know Pearl Jam fans who don’t know more than the couple of tunes that remain in modern setlists. As I’ve argued before and will continue to do so – they’re missing out. Stronger than BinauralRiot Act benefits from Vedder having banished his writer’s block and having a much broader and emotional range of subjects to draw on and, frankly, get angry about -though Vedder has said that “If you think about it, it’s all very confusing and overwhelming to try to grasp it and put it all down.”

The album kicks off with ‘Can’t Keep’ – a tune that Vedder had played on the ukulele during a couple of solo shows (and would record as such on his own Ukulele Songs a few years later) that Gossard heard and enthused would be “killer” with the full band treatment and became a slow-burning thumper with buzzing, treated guitars that feels like a No Code song and leads into what is now a quite rare thing: a full band composition, ‘Save You’.

With lyrics that tackle addiction and the pain and frustration of seeing a close friend waste their life, ‘Save You’ is Mike McCready’s only writing credit on Riot Act and came about when he was sitting down with Stone Gossard (who contributed a fair bit song-writing wise) and “had two ideas, and one idea I worked really hard on and thought it was totally great and then I played it for him, and he goes, ‘Well, that’s not…well that’s okay. You got anything else?’ And so, the other thing I had was the “Save You” riff, and he goes, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ Ya know, so it’s…I was really built up to wanting to play this other song, and uh, nobody seemed to be very excited about it…”

‘Save You’ leans into the relentless, hard-edged rock sound that would blend seamlessly alongside tracks from Vitalogy as would the propulsive-beat driven ‘Green Disease.’ ‘Thumbing My Way’, meanwhile, is an acoustic ballad that showcases a change in direction for Vedder’s writing and is a clear signpost for what was to come with Into The Wild while ‘You Are’ is a personal favourite. 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.

It would be impossible to talk about Riot Act without giving at least a passing mention to ‘Bu$hleaguer’. A dark, weaving satirical swipe, this was Pearl Jam at their most unambiguous politically and – while not much touched since – would regularly draw boos and jeers from certain clusters of the crowd when played live. Though even before the record was released there was no way to think Pearl Jam were Bush supporters so you’ve gotta wonder about the ‘shock’ it created.

Riot Act could very easily have been Pearl Jam’s greatest record. Reinvigorated and with a wealth of inspiration to draw on, there are some fantastic tunes on their seventh album (and there’s not many bands you can say that about). But… they should’ve taken a break. They sound a little tired and songs like ‘Ghost’ and ‘Help Help’ even sound tired. As much as I love the majority of Riot Act there are still 5 of its 15 songs I’ll skip more than listen through to and while that’s still a pretty signal to noise ratio (to borrow a phrase), when stacked against other works – it means it doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have done.

The odd thing is that had you cut those 5 songs and thrown in the ‘B’ sides recorded during these sessions – ‘Down’, ‘Undone’, and the brilliant ‘Otherside’ instead then Riot Act would have been one of their greatest albums.

However, there’s a sense of finality about Riot Act. In many ways it marks the end of a chapter for Pearl Jam – it would be four years before they’d release another album and, with Riot Act they completed their ‘studio’ obligations to Sony Music’s Epic Records with whom they had signed as Mookie Blaylock ahead of recording their debut Ten and, following their next tour, would take a much-needed break.