Pearl Jam left everything on the Dead's stage at Soldier Field
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series that is intended to shine a light on some loved recordings that are readily available, if not necessarily for sale.
On July 9, 1995, the Grateful Dead played what would be their final show at Soldier Field. There are recordings of it that have traded hands via cassette and CD-R and now on the internet, and what’s preserved is a stirring, albeit uneven, Jerry Garcia giving it his all on the final night of their summer tour. It’s particularly palpable during “So Many Roads,” where Garcia was struggling to reach some notes but straining so much as to be unloading everything that was left within him.
The Dead left their stage behind that night as they packed up and moved on, a favor to a band who, because of venue cancellations, were forced to move their show to the uncomfortable confines of a football stadium. And that night, Pearl Jam played their longest show to date, a raging evening where the only goal, it seemed was “to play as long as they do.” And from “Release” until the closing “Yellow Ledbetter” nearly three hours later, Pearl Jam delivered what should rank among their finest nights as a band.
This show was always something of a beacon in a collection that has more Pearl Jam recordings than should be considered healthy. Before I moved over to a binder to handle the sheer heft of that many CD-Rs, I was in the habit of printing purposefully minimalistic cover art for each show, detailing the venue, city and date on the front with the setlist on the back for the two- and three-CD jewel cases. Simple, white, Helvetica font, the picture of efficiency.
Except for this show. This was one that got a special designation, a cover that represented the height of my photoshop powers at the time, a mashing of a rough typewriter font with an era-appropriate photo of Vedder and his “SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A CRIME” bumper sticker tattooed across the pickguard of a worn black telecaster.
That guitar wouldn’t survive the end of this show, a result of Vedder destroying it mid-set across his mic stand in the midst of another high-intensity freakout. That intensity would rear its head several times throughout that show, and the results left an audible impact on the recordings, most of which stem from an FM broadcast that the band administered themselves, a frequent tactic they employed on the 1995 tour dubbed “Monkeywrench Radio.”
The rawness in his voice, a combination of the hoarse remnants of a tour coming to rest and the frustration with the machine that was threatening to swallow his band, gave the music an edge that pushed everything to new heights beyond the simply energetic. This was just after the peak of Pearl Jam’s fight against the corporate elements of rock, highlighted by a “Ticketmaster sucks!” chant egged on by the fans after a particularly scorching “Not For You.”
A couple of fun, rare covers make an appearance at the start of the first encore, with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” and Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” each receiving blazing treatments that made it feel right at home next to the likes of “Blood,” which closes the encore with such fury as to somehow make the rest of the night pale by comparison. Vedder’s voice now is in tatters, the shards of flesh dangling from within his throat nearly visible through the speakers as the guitars wail down into silence and the crowd screams. The band would return to send more than 40,000 fans home with “Yellow Ledbetter,” an appropriate ending to such a manic night.
In listening to Pearl Jam’s live shows through their more than 20 years on the road, there is a sharp divide between the early years and the later ones. Their early shows, especially in 1992 and 1994, have a sense of purpose that can only be derived by five guys who secretly thought that this ride could end at any moment. The farther they go past those years, and the more the tight, professional band is revealed, better in terms of telepathy and pacing but losing something on the edges that made them such a force of nature.
This show, then, marks something of a milepost in Pearl Jam’s career. There would be wild nights here and there later (a recording from the end of 1995 in San Diego reveals as much), but this night marked one of the last times the band went all out in its pursuit of the cosmic, leaving battered guitars and vocals in its stead. More than the last night of a tour, the music preserved on that night in Soldier Field shows a band that played as though their world could end at any moment. And, in music, it can. Pearl Jam had seen the effects of a raging world more than once in its five years as a band. The Grateful Dead’s 30-year ride ended less than a month later, when Garcia died in his sleep.
It’s a fragile existence, one even more so for a group in the spotlight trying to remain creative. It was a special night, obviously. They had nothing to lose, so they played until they had nothing left.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com