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Music Review: Pearl Jam – Live At the Gorge (7 Disc Box Set)

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I guess you've got to live in the Northwest to really appreciate The Gorge.

Located in Eastern Washington's farming and wine country — high above beautiful rolling hills overlooking the natural beauty of Washington State's Columbia River — The Gorge Ampitheatre is one of the best places to see an outdoor concert in the United States.

Touring musicians have of course known this for years now. Notoriously concert-shy perfectionists Steely Dan made a live album there. Sting has been known to sing its praises to his peers in the record business. The Dave Matthews Band has an annual ritual of doing a three night stand there over Labor Day Weekend. They even made a live album and DVD out of one of those weekends.

I've seen a number of memorable shows there myself over the years — from Radiohead to Neil Young to Santana to Coldplay — whose Chris Martin seemed particularly stunned by the Gorge's natural beauty when I saw them there a few years back.

The past few years however have seen some rough times for the venerable Gorge. The drive is some three hours over the mountains from Seattle. The concessions and bathroom facilities there are also in dire need of a facelift. And when the Muckleshoot Indian tribe opened their own White River Ampitheatre a mere forty minutes from Seattle a few years back, a lot of the Gorge's summer concert business went with it.

White River's "convenience" notwithstanding, it still takes a lot more time to get in and out of there — driving in standstill traffic along a two lane highway — then it does to drive across the state to get to the Gorge. Besides, for my money the pristine setting of the Gorge remains unmatched. There is nothing quite like taking in some great music under the night sky overlooking the mountains and the river there.

Living in the Northwest themselves, Pearl Jam knows this.

While bands like Radiohead and Coldplay may have taken their last tours to White River for their Northwest stops, Pearl Jam is a band that plays the Gorge in the summer months every chance it can.

Pearl Jam is also a band that has increasingly developed a reputation as a must-see live band. Whether playing before a stadium of fans, or in an intimate setting like the set they played at Easy Street — a record store located just a few blocks from where I live in West Seattle — Pearl Jam is a band you know you can count on to deliver the goods in a live setting. In that respect, they are like clockwork.

As a result they have made scores of live albums out of sheer necessity. Unlike many bands who have reached the same level of success, Pearl Jam does not rely on playing the same setlist night after night — but rather will change things up at the drop of the proverbial hat. There is even an entire record label sanctioned official "bootleg series" of live shows they did from a tour several years back.

Like Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead, this is a band whose fans trade taped shows amongst each other with a ferocity only the truly obsessed could understand. What those same fans also know, is that when Pearl Jam plays a hometown gig at the Gorge, the chances are better than good you'll be getting something special.

Such is the case with this seven disc boxed set recorded over the course of three shows at the Gorge — one in 2005, and back to back shows from just last year. As boxed sets go, there is also a decidedly no frills nature about this one. There are no extensive booklets or extras here (which probably accounts for the relatively low price — about forty bucks at Amazon — for a seven disc boxed set).

Instead, Pearl Jam let the music do the talking here. And there is a lot of it. At three complete concerts clocking in at some seven and a half hours, the setlists of each vary a lot. There are the well known Pearl Jam songs like the rarely played these days "Jeremy," "Given To Fly," and "World Wide Suicide" from their most recent self-titled album. There are also some great cover songs, from The Who's "Baba O' Reilly," to good friend Neil Young's "Fuckin' Up."

The common thread here though, is just how tight Pearl Jam has become as a band. They may not sell the records they did back in the heyday of Seattle's nineties grunge explosion. But they do show why they have developed a well earned reputation as one of the best live rock and roll bands in the world here.

And make no mistake.

Pearl Jam is a great rock and roll band — even though Eddie Vedder might just knock me over the head with his wine bottle for threatening his "punk credibility" by saying that. The fact is these guys are one of the few bands out there able to straddle that line. For every reluctant — unintended as it was — classic rock staple like "Alive," Pearl Jam responds with the punk rock energy of "Spin The Black Circle" on this set.

I've always said that these guys had a lot more Bad Company than Sex Pistols in them — what between Vedder's rock and roll soul vocals, and the dual guitar attack of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready. And let us not forget ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. The other thing Seattle does besides producing coffee and computer geniuses, is grow great drummers.

The other thing about Pearl Jam that this boxed set captures is the unique connection this band makes with their audience. Like Springsteen's live shows during songs like "Thunder Road," the audience quotes entire lyrics in unison during a particularly frenetic version here of "Why Go."

Playing before an adoring hometown crowd, under the beautiful starlit skies at the Gorge, you almost wish you could have been there — at least for one of these nights — listening to the seven plus hours documented here.

Even for fans who have all of Pearl Jam's numerous live releases, this boxed set represents something special.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    I agree 100%, Glen. This is a great release. I haven’t quite gotten through the whole thing yet, just taking it a bit at a time, and it’s a pleasant surprise – I actually wasn’t expecting it to be as great as it is, even knowing how good they are live. I’m really glad they opted to go for a more dedicated release for this than the official boots to set it apart as the shows really deserve the attention.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanx Tom. When I see guys like you and Hathaway agreeing, I know I made the right call on this one. The whole thing is a lot to digest — and even though I live in Seattle, I didn’t even attend any of the shows documented here (don’t ask). But from the moment I put it into my CD in my car player on one of the trips my job takes me to, I was immediately and completely absorbed by the intensity of the performance.

    No doubt about it, this is great stuff.

    Thanx for the comment.

    -Glen