A little visit, reminding me of his presence…

Somewhere back in time when  I started this blog I mentioned that I was toying with a post on the ultimate Pearl Jam set-list.

Pearl Jam live are a wonderful thing. Gallingly, though, I’ve only seen them live once. They seem to have now joined the list of great bands that consider playing at Milton Keynes and Leeds as a UK tour – what happened to the rest of the country? – and have given up playing at Wembley Arena (where I saw them on the Binaural tour).

A year or so back I read a great piece that stated: “Pearl Jam is known as one of the best live acts in its arena-filling weight class. After only fitfully listening to new Pearl Jam albums for more than a decade, seeing the band live reignited my interest in listening to them again. Pearl Jam will remain interesting to people for as long as it is able to tour.”

I genuinely believe that there’s not many acts that can touch them live in terms of quality, consistency and pure excitement. And, while I’m unlikely to be in the audience any time soon (their 25th Anniversary trek this year is limited to US/Canadian shows) there’s still plenty of opportunity to enjoy them live thanks to the unusual decision they took back in 2000 – the same tour I caught them on – to release an “official bootleg” of every (with a couple of exceptions) show to offer fans the opportunity to get a good-quality audio of each concert for a reasonable price.

Now…. given how many shows they play a year and that it’s been going for close to 16 years… that’s a lot of shows to choose from. I’m gob-smacked at the idea that some people own the lot.

I’ve got…. a few. Physically; just the show that I attended. I can always claim I’m on a Pearl Jam album that way.

On the iPod, however… well that’s a different story.

There’s probably a dozen or so. Some purchased legitimately and others… in the truer nature of Bootlegs. And each one of them is different and worth having in their own right. See, the thing is I got given the amazing PJ20 book one year – along with the DVD and soundtrack – and there’s mention of so many great shows that it’s impossible not to at least check some of the more significant ones out. Like the 2003 show in Uniondale when the band were heckled for their performance of Bushleaguer:

Which pisses Vedder off so much it’s apparent in the cover of The Clash’s Know Your Rights that follows.

I also have the trio of shows they played at the Tweeter Center in Boston that same year where they used the opportunity to play every song they’d played on the tour to at that point over the course of the three shows; 82 originals and 12 covers with only one repeat….

But to get to the original point; I’ve been hunting for that recording that, to me, represents the ultimate set list.

Back in 2012 (pre-Lightning Bolt), Eddie Vedder let a fan club contest winner choose the setlist for a show.  Now the set that Brian Farias – for it was he – chose was pretty good. He even managed to get Vedder to play Bugs for only the second time. But it’s a big challenge, really… how to find the right balance.

I, for example, would want to hear a lot of deeper cuts. But then, looking back at the quote up top of this ramble, how would that play at a show when not all in attendance know every Pearl Jam song. So you do have to mix in the ‘hits’ as it were and – while I don’t always listen to it – Better Man always gets the crowd going and becomes something else live than on record.

Then there’s the case that Pearl Jam don’t do Greatest Hits tours and are usually touring in support of a new album. So what of the newer songs make the grade and still manage to keep the crowd going. In all honesty I wouldn’t really pluck a show from the Backspacer tour because I don’t really feel a lot of tracks from that album worked in that context.

Lightning Bolt, however, was a much stronger effort and there was a lot of stuff I was itching to hear live. Factor in the fact that the band were in great shape and playing better than ever, there’s a lot of gems to be found in the Lightning Bolt tour bootlegs.

So I think I’ve now been able to find the ‘perfect’ set list / bootleg. Well, sort of. Because there’s two.

Worchester, MA, October 15th 2013 is a 32 song strong set that packs in Leash (not as ferocious as I’d love to hear it played but I’ve yet to find a recording that does play it quite as strong as it could be and this one has a great story that precedes it), Red Mosquito and Man of the Hour along with newer cuts like Swallowed Hole and Infallible along with the tour-set-list regulars Mind Your Manners and Sirens. The energy picks up after a quieter start and there’s a great performance of Nothing As It Seems, Fatal gets a play in the first Encore and Crazy Mary makes an appearance. Oh, and Last Kiss.

(I love the moment at about 1:35 where someone realises it’s Leash and gives a joyous yelp)

Set: Release, Long Road, Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, Lightning Bolt, Mind Your Manners, Hail, Hail, Sirens, Even Flow, Nothing As it Seems, Swallowed Whole, Red Mosquito, Whipping, Corduroy, Infallible, Got Some, Save You, Leash, Let The Records Play,
Do The Evolution, Better Man.

Encore 1: Man Of The Hour, Yellow Moon, Fatal, Just Breathe, Spin The Black Circle, Unthought Known, Porch.

Encore 2: Last Kiss, Crazy Mary, Alive, Sonic Reducer, Indifference.

Meanwhile the tour closer at the Key Arena in Seattle on December 3rd finds the band in an even stronger form, the energy is high and they’re playing to a home-crowd. So tracks like Let Me Sleep, In My Tree and Pilate get pulled out, there’s better banter, Breath, State of Love and Trust, a story from Ed of how he was nearly lost at sea, Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns, Pendulum opens and Mike McCready playing Van Halen’s Eruption into Yellow Ledbetter brings the show to a close after 37 songs.

Turns out there’s a video of the whole show ‘out there’ which I’ll leave here as long as it lasts:

Set: Pendulum, Nothingman, Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, Interstellar Overdrive, Corduroy, Lightning Bolt, Mind Your Manners, Given To Fly, Pilate, Garden, Getaway, Even Flow, Sirens, In My Tree, Do The Evolution, Unthought Known, Black, Let The Records Play
Spin The Black Circle, Lukin, Better Man.

Encore 1: After Hours, Let Me Sleep,Future Days, Daughter, Chloe Dancer, Crown Of Thorns, Breath, State Of Love And Trust, Porch.

Encore 2: Supersonic, Got Some, Rearviewmirror, Alive, Kick Out The Jams, Eruption, Yellow Ledbetter.

So yeah; I think, between those two it’s as close to a perfect set-list / show recording as you’ll get. A good mix of the deeper cuts, the crowd pleasures, strong new material and plenty of Vedder’s stories and not a heckle in ear-shot.

Although I’ve not yet heard the show with No Code played in full or…..

Hear the circus so profound

“Everyone’s a critic looking back up the river”

And so begins Lightning Bolt – the first studio album from Pearl Jam in four years (the longest wait between albums for a band once regularly chucking em out every 18 months) and one of the albums that got the most plays on my stereo, in my car and on my iPod last year despite it only coming out in October.

I don’t think I’d awaited a release last year with as much excitement as “the new Pearl Jam” record. PJ fans had been updating numerous websites with snippets of information on “album 10” almost immediately after the release of Backspacer thanks to then hints that more music was imminent. Except it wasn’t. So for three and a half years there were snippets from interviews with different band members during promo tours for solo offerings, random gossip based on studio bookings and occasional live appearances of ‘new’ songs and debate as to what would make the album: would it include the throwaway “Ole” or even the occasionally-performed “Of The Earth” (one that was even touted as an album title)?  All amounting to nothing.

And then, a countdown clock appeared on the PJ website and the waiting was over. Or at least we knew when it would be.

Still I went back and forth in my head – a new album from Pearl Jam could go either way, would it be a limp duck like Riot Act (a good album by anyone’s standards but, and this is hard for me to say as a fan, a bit of a whimper rather than the intended roar) or a return to form?

Then this appeared:

And then the journalists invited to hear the new album started getting excited. Talk of “Sirens” was louder than anything else. Surely no song could live up to the hype that was being thrown at this ‘modern Black’… but it did:

At first listen, it’s a generic power ballad, right? No. Listen to the lyrics. This isn’t some triumphant, fist pump ballad. Here Eddie Vedder sounds more emotionally fragile than ever and is admitting just how terrifying the finite notion of life can be, especially when you’ve so much you cherish. (Though I can’t listen to Sirens since the birth of my son without blubbing until tears hit my car seat)

When I finally got my hands on the slab of vinyl that is Lightning Bolt my excitement was at a peak. Thankfully it was worth the wait – this, to my mind, is their strongest effort since Yield. 

Where Backspacer was a more ‘fun’ record and blasted past quickly and Pearl Jam sounded like the band rediscovering their stride – albeit victoriously – Lightning Bolt finds PJ angry again (“They’re taking young innocents/And then they throw ’em on a burning pile!”) and there’s nothing better thrown into the recipe for a Pearl Jam album than a bit of grief.

Musically this album is perhaps the most diverse they’ve released. While Vitalogy contains some pretty oddball leanings and No Code remains underrated in its deliberate sound change there’s something refreshing about the variety found on Lightning Bolt in terms of both the style and the journeys of the songs. “Pendulum” is a dark, brooding beast that never emerges into a monster ‘FM’ song but remains a menacing growl, “Infallible” is a track I still find hard to believe is a Pearl Jam original:

As part of the interviews that the band conducted ahead of the album’s release, Jeff Ament suggested that this album has much more of Stone Gossard’s imprint on it than any other PJ to date. If that’s true then hats off to Stone. The tunes hear are as tight as you’d expect of a band that’s into its third decade yet – perhaps for the first time – rather than being pulled back in to a structure or formula, are given room to breathe and wander down corridors the bands style had not previously allowed for. Whether that route is the near-Beatles like figures of Infallible or the swampy, blues of Let The Records Play, I’ve been playing them over and over since October.BYVYZ0FIgAADFsE

This far into their career, Pearl Jam are an oddity among their contemporaries – they’ve never split up or lost members to drug addictions and suicides (though they did, for a while, have a bit of a Spinal Tap drummer issue) or experimented with a ‘dance’ album. They’ve done what they abruptly applied the handbrake on their success to do back in the mid-90’s – have a long, successful career. While a new Pearl Jam album won’t make the front pages as it would’ve done back in the 90s or hit the sales figures they were once associated with, it’s a given that it will contain more than a handful of tracks that will remain in their live sets for a few years to come (and the band are now more vital as a live act than a studio one). It’s unlikely now that they’ll release anything bad enough to embarrass their legacy. With that in mind it is, then, a real charge to hear them still pushing hard and refusing to rest on their laurels – while it took four years, Lighting Bolt does find them still punching hard, going for the over-reach and over-emote and turning out belters.

I hesitated in writing this post for a while as there was still one track that hadn’t ‘clicked’ for me and then, last week, while barreling down a country track “My Father’s Son” did just that (I still can’t enjoy “Johnny Guitar” or “Big Wave”on each listen). As such I can’t help but feel that this was my favourite release of 2013.

2013 – A Quick Summise

I haven’t been here for a while. Again. This year has been hugely busy and time to write has not been mine. Aside from from keeping busy and exploring fjords, my wife and I welcomed our son to the world this year. I wouldn’t swap that for the all the time to write blog posts about music in world.

That being said, let’s chew over some music from 2013 – setting aside the big Pearl Jam discussion…

BNJdTlJCcAADTls In the same way as this year is starting strong – another post or three right there – 2013 was also a strong starter with Sigur Ros announcing Kveikur, hot on the heels of their ‘comeback’ album Valtari. I have a huge amount of love for Kveikur  – the lead-off EP Brennisteinn got a lot of rotation en route to Cambridge for a day out with my wife, the aesthetics of the packaging and the vinyl quality were all top notch and the album itself was great: a real, powerful, snarling beast of intent (especially compared to the relative damp squib Valtari) that bought a new ferocity out in them and saw them stamping their name heavily onto a genre that they’ve so massively inspired.  A lot of plays of this in the car, in the house, in the ear-buds..

On the subject of suprise, early wins AND comebacks – My Bloody Valentine‘s bombshell started the year off well. I ordered my vinyl as soon as I could load the MBV website and was glad I did; it’s easy to dismiss a band that releases new music after such a long period, to complain that it’s not as good as Loveless (what could be?), to say they should stick to the reunion / reissue circuit (I WILL talk about the Pixies EP but that’s going to need a post of its own)… but to my mind MBV was a slab of greatness. It has all the wall of reverb and wash of guitar, the thump of drums against dropped tunings that you’d expect.. but there’s something new in there too.  It’s a great connection from what was and what could be. A shame that it came out so early in the year in a way as it almost got lost in the noise created by other releases as the months went by.I suddenly feel the need to put it on again, in fact. 

BM5ggaKCYAARJacThe National‘s album Trouble Will Find Me was sublime; deep, absorbing and multi-layered. I picked this one up fairly soon after it came out back in May. Hugely transfixing (even the artwork is one of those addictive images that I have trouble pulling my eyes from) and a real move forward from High Violet – a band that genuinely seems to get stronger with each release. It got many a spin on my turntable, through the iPod and more than one track found their way onto different mix cds through the year. All the callings of a good purchase for me.

Following a stroke of luck in which – following a win on Xfm’s Quizee Rascal, followed by a bit of admin blunder and recompense – I found myself with 400 iTunes downloads I got to exploring a lot of new music this year.

Having read a few strong reviews and after hearing a track (not to mention my enjoyment of previous album Empros) or two I downloaded the Russian Circles album Memorial. A pretty solid, and quality effort but most of note in rounding up this year as it introduced me to Chelsea Wolfe. Her album Pain Is Beauty is one of the year’s strongest for me – dark, haunting and hugely hypnotic. Like P J Harvey’s To Bring You My Love dipped in David Lynch atmospherics and sung with a soul-chilling beauty. 

I also used a fair chunk of those downloads to absorb more back-catalogue and the new album Walking on a Pretty Daze by Kurt Vile. I’ve recently started to really fall for the particular groove that Mr Vile so effortlessly taps into. It took a while – his previous album Smoke Ring For My Halo had sat in my collection for a while but didn’t really ‘click’ until this year but now that it has… can’t get enough. There’s something so enveloping about the sound and style that it’s more like a continuing journey than a new album, familiar yet still full of development and surprise to keep rewarding. Of course, from here I then read and stumbled back a little further to his work with The War On Drugs  and then their work without him – Slave Ambient in particular getting a few plays at the tail of this year. 

Also getting a lot of play – though not quite so much as those above (but that’s more down to my not having been able to allocated enough time to listen) – were Silence Yourself by SavagesAntiphon by Midlake, Junip‘s self-titled album, last year’s excellent Kill for Love by Chromatics, My Head is an Animal by Of Monsters & Men (thanks to getting addicted to “Dirty Paws” via the Walter Mitty trailer) and Pirameda by Efterklang.

Strangely enough my new commute has put me into constant tuning range for Xfm – I’ve been able to hear a lot more ‘new’ music of the ‘not pop’ variety for once. It meant that along with those usual suspects and bands listed above, I got into music by the slightly more mainstream acts like the catchy, pure-fun music of Haim who’s melodic, solid and good-80’s leaning Days Gone By also found a happy listener in my wifethe perhaps even more ‘Radio 1’ Ben Howard who’s album Every Kingdom got a fair bit of play this year (Devon-based chap playing mainly acoustic, chilled, beach-like tunes in the manner of Mojave 3 – it’s not that bad) but more so this track, “”, from The Burgh Island EP:

This got lodged in my head early in the year and I’ve been addicted to it since.

Also of note –   Boards to Canada and Tomorrow’s Harvest got spun a fair few times but then only after I’d grabbed it using my download haul. To be honest, while I enjoyed it I was glad I hadn’t sprung for the vinyl.

The same “glad I didn’t pre-order” could also be said for this year’s two other BIG HYPE releases – I used to like and have a fair bit of time for Arcade FireReflektor, the surrounding hype and the essentially dire nature of the single and the extra-hype over the most pointless guest contribution from David Bowie (was this another of the mutterings from the same retirement home his own boring-as-death comeback album was recorded?) They may well have been trying to capture a fun, exciting element but something in the execution of the idea didn’t work and to me it sounds flat and uninteresting when they’re trying so obviously hard to do otherwise. Not only that but when stretched out over the seven and a half minutes of the single and EIGHTY-FIVE minutes of the album… I’d more happily listen to Funeral and the half-dozen crackers from Neon Bible and The Suburbs in that time.

Then we have BIG HYPE release 2…. I found Random Access Memories to be hugely bland and uninteresting after having been pummeled with “Get Lucky” from every radio station in the Universe and thought Daft Punk could have done, nay SHOULD have done a whole lot better in the seven years since their last ‘album proper’. The only track I’ve listened to more than once is “Giorgio by Moroder” and I don’t think that’s down to their input as much as it is Giorgio’s. Although, in fairness, “Instant Crush” came on the radio recently and managed to sound fresh – the perils of having your comeback single played to death and flogged when your album is only a 6/10 at best, I suppose.

Still, I’d not like to finish this wrap up on a downer – to be honest I’ll probably remember more to write on last year’s music when my mind settles – so I’ll leave with the last song I downloaded from my iTunes haul, don’t judge….