Pearl Jam in performance from Philadelphia in 2016. The blistering three-hour concert kicks off with the band playing its multi-platinum-selling debut album “Ten” from beginning to end. A Coda Cornerstone Collection.
Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut, “Ten,” really isn’t a concept album or a rock opera in the mold of singer Eddie Vedder’s rite-of-passage record, The Who’s “Quadrophenia.” But it’s got a theme all the same in that many of the songs are about outcasts who have had decisions made for them, who have been given little or no voice in their destiny. The final song, “Release,” amounts to a slow-burn prayer for deliverance.
When Pearl Jam performed the song at a 2016 Philadelphia concert to wrap a rare front-to-back performance of “Ten,” Vedder underlined why “Release” was chosen as the album’s closing statement.
“This song was about losing a pop,” he says while wiping his brow. “It’s one of those healing songs. It’s not gonna lessen the blow of any kind of tragedy, but at loud volumes or alone or with a lot of other people sometimes it just helps you get through…it never goes away.” If anything lifts “Ten” above the era in which it was made, it’s the compassion that busts through the Led Zeppelin-esque backdrop conjured by guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Dave Krusen. In the decades since it was conceived, “Release” has widened its scope, deepened its meaning, not just for Vedder and Pearl Jam, but for their audience. What was once a one-way conversation between a son and his late father has become something bigger, more universal.
‘Release’ appears out of a guitar mist, Vedder’s voice a moan, an echo of the sacred singing of the Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
“There are two brothers in the audience and they lost their brother,” Vedder says at the Philadelphia show, citing the family members by name. The audience, as with most Pearl Jam shows, is mostly made up of diehards who see their lives in the songs, as expressed by tears or raised fists and voices.
“Release” appears out of a guitar mist, Vedder’s voice a moan, an echo of the sacred singing of the Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. That connection became increasingly pronounced when Pearl Jam would perform the song in concert in the years after its release. Khan’s music had started circulating widely in the West when Peter Gabriel signed him to a record deal in the late ‘80s and the cutting-edge electro-soul group Massive Attack remixed his track “Mustt Mustt” in 1990. In 1996, Vedder would record two songs with Khan for the “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack. Khan’s voice seems to hover between two worlds: transcending the earthly, yearning for the spiritual. That’s the same place where “Release” lives and why it retains its power and mystique after all these years, never more so than in the Philadelphia show.
The song caps an album that initially felt out of step with an era then dominated by artists such as Vanilla Ice and Motley Crue. Within a year of its release, “Ten” would be the No. 2 album on the Billboard charts and on its way to selling more than 13 million copies in America alone. It did so because the songs struck an emotional chord with listeners, particularly on the road.
Pearl Jam pressed buttons that resonated in arenas — power ballads that illuminate darkened hockey stadiums, rock anthems perfect for air-guitar solos, wordless sing-alongs that allowed even fans who didn’t know all the lyrics to raise their voices in solidarity with the band. At the same time, the warmth of Vedder’s voice and the vulnerability in his lyrics cleared out room for intimacy within the bombast.
That intimacy is never more apparent than in “Release.” When Pearl Jam recorded it, the song was improvised into existence with Vedder murmuring about absence and reconnection with his late father. As a teenager, Vedder found out from his mother that the man he thought was his biological father was in fact his stepfather. His mother and biological father had divorced a year after he was born, and the man had died by the time Vedder found out the truth. Vedder would soon leave home in Evanston, Illinois, and head to California, then eventually to Seattle and the band that would become Pearl Jam.
“Alive” also documents that time in Vedder’s life, another “Ten” cornerstone transformed in concert. It was among the first Pearl Jam songs for which Vedder wrote lyrics, and among the most personal. It chronicles what it felt like to find that he’d been living in a house of secrets since childhood. Its refrain of “I’m still alive” came wrapped in a 10-ton guitar riff, but it’s anything but a celebration. “Do I deserve to be?” the narrator asks. “Is that the question? And if so, who answers?”
Like Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 blockbuster ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ the psychic pain in the verses of ‘Alive’ was no match for that tidal wave of a chorus.
“Alive” ranks with the biggest hits of Pearl Jam’s career, an iconic track that’s pretty much a must-play at its concerts. It has been performed nearly 800 times over the quintet’s touring history. But initially Vedder had misgivings about how the song was perceived, and how enthusiastically audiences reacted to it. Here he was pouring out his pain, questioning whether he should or could go on living now that he knew the truth about his family, but the fans were shouting the chorus like they’d just been emancipated for recess. Though the lyrics re-opened a wound from Vedder’s past, the music felt triumphant. “I’m still alive!” Like Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 blockbuster “Born in the U.S.A.,” the psychic pain in the verses of “Alive” was no match for that tidal wave of a chorus. But as the 2016 performance makes clear — call-and-response vocals with a chorus of thousands, Vedder whipping the microphone cord like Roger Daltrey in his fringe-sleeved prime with The Who — Pearl Jam has embraced “Alive” not for what it was intended to be, but what it has become, at least in spirit. “I’m still alive” has become “We’re still alive.”
At its core, “Ten” is a guitar-driven, classic-rock album that could’ve been released in 1973 alongside “Quadrophenia” and not sounded out of place. Sonically, it’s a throwback to the band’s heroes, but lyrically it spoke to the lost generation of 1991. After performing “Ten” in its entirety at the Philadelphia show, Pearl Jam dives into a stew of songs from subsequent years, only to return to ‘91 and one of the “Ten” orphans. “Yellow Ledbetter,” a collaboration between Vedder and McCready, was left off the album but later surfaced as a B-side to the “Jeremy” single. Its stature has grown ever since, a song that sounds like an anthem even if its meaning has never been entirely clear, thanks in large part to Vedder’s slurred delivery. The singer’s dark timbre and McCready’s melancholy guitar figure, reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s intro to “Hey Joe” or “Little Wing,” make clearly enunciated words almost superfluous. The song becomes a eulogy of sorts, a tribute — but to what exactly? A fallen soldier, a lover, a lost opportunity, a fleeting moment on a long-ago street? No matter, the feel is what counts. The audience in Philadelphia gets swept up in the moment and another full-throated, beyond-words sing-along erupts. We’re still alive.
Pearl Jam Setlist, April 29, 2016
2. Even Flow
4. Why Go
14. Who You Are
15. Let the Records Play
16. Spin the Black Circle
17. Do the Evolution
18. Bee Girl
19. Just Breathe
20. All or None
21. Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd cover)
22. Mind Your Manners
23. Given to Fly
26. Last Kiss (Wayne Cochran cover)
27. Better Man
29. Throw Your Hatred Down (Neil Young cover)
30. Sonic Reducer (Dead Boys cover)
31. Baba O’Riley (The Who cover)
32. Yellow Ledbetter
Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”