1998 was a major year of transition for Pearl Jam as a band. The preceding three years was a rocky time for the band, as well as their future. They endured a personnel change in 1994 adding ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. At the same time, they embarked on their famous battle with Ticketmaster from 1994 to 1997. Although seen as a classic masterpiece today, their previous record released in 1996, No Code, was a commercial disappointment. This was mainly due to the massive change in the band’s sound with Jack Irons on drums. It was such a ‘night and day’ change that an ordinary listener would not have recognized Pearl Jam on No Code as the same band that had mega-hits such as Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy in previous years. Uncertainty from the fans, critics, and industry alike was not exaggerated in the months leading up to February 1998 and release of their fifth record, Yield.
All anxieties quickly gave way to excitement when the lead single from Yield, “Given to Fly” hit the radio airwaves in January of 1998. It was a departure from the experimental mood of No Code and a return to what made them the biggest band on the planet; an undeniable stadium-rock anthem. With the strength of “Given to Fly,” a pirate radio broadcast, and a seemingly constant running promo ad on MTV, Yield was an instant commercial success. After finally reaching a deal with Ticketmaster, Pearl Jam announced their first comprehensive tour in years. It began well enough. The band began with dates in Hawaii, and then on to the South Pacific. With an entire U.S. tour booked up until fall, chaos once again fell upon the Pearl Jam camp. Drummer Jack Irons abruptly left the band after their show on March 20th, 1998 in Perth, Australia due to health concerns. Pearl Jam’s Spinal Tap drummer situation had continued. They were now in search of their fifth drummer since becoming a band eight years earlier.
They surprisingly solved the problem quickly. Being that fellow Seattle band Soundgarden had just recently disbanded, drummer Matt Cameron was unemployed. A simple phone call asking Cameron “what are you doing this summer?” changed the entire game for Pearl Jam. Matt Cameron spent the next couple of months learning as much of Pearl Jam’s catalog as possible. Pearl Jam plated their first gig with Cameron on May 7th, 1998 at a small venue in Seattle, WA called ARO.space as a warm-up. His official public debut with the band came as an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. They performed the second single from Yield entitled “Wishlist.” It was apparent going into the first chorus of the song that the sound that the general public just couldn’t really get used to over the past few years was ancient history. It was a new sound. It was tight, and most importantly there was a drummer behind them throwing down ‘meat’ in a song where it needed to be to elevate the entire band to another level.
Matt Cameron changed this band forever when he joined them on the 1998 tour in support of their record Yield. His performance alone changed and put a new spin on the mood of a great deal of Pearl Jam’s catalog. What he did was give the music a punch where it was seriously lacking over the past several years. For example:
Listen to No Code’s “Off He Goes” pre-Matt Cameron. Try it again with Matt Cameron.
Or try Yield’s “Given to Fly” pre-Matt Cameron. Then with Matt Cameron.
Hear the difference? The punch? Hear how it drives the rest of the band to a higher level? Cameron gave Pearl Jam a new meaning for the word Yield. They at first meant it as a yield to nothing. Fans began to see yield as watch out, we are about to melt your faces. They didn’t disappoint. (Not to detract from the talent of Jack Irons, but stylistically his sound never quite fit Pearl Jam’s musical direction. Being Irons is the matchmaker that got Pearl Jam together in 1990, his legacy with the band will last longer and always go deeper than his drumming)
It would be a couple of months before I would witness the ‘new’ Pearl Jam in person. The first time I did was in Raleigh, NC on August 31st, 1998 and again in Greenville, SC on September 4th. Being absolutely floored twice in a few days time led to the impromptu decision to drive to Washington, DC to catch the September 18th date in Columbia, MD. With no tickets and barely enough money for gas to get there one-way, we set out just after sunrise on Friday morning the 18th from Boone, NC en route to Washington, DC.
With a $15 dollar room booked through an employee discount at the Holiday Inn in Georgetown on Wisconsin Avenue, we journeyed on Highway 421 to Bristol, TN, then I-81 north, to I-66 west, to the Key Bridge arriving amidst a wretched Friday evening rush hour in Washington, DC. After every part of the journey taking three times longer than anticipated, we were quickly running out of time for this 8pm concert. We were stuck in gridlock traffic on Wisconsin Avenue at 6:30pm and had yet to get as far as the hotel. Fate had to intervene.
As we were sitting in traffic by the National Cathedral, the car behind us began to blast their horn, flash their headlights, and yell out the window toward us. As we both rolled down the windows and looked back, we could make out what the commotion was. The people behind us had noticed the Pearl Jam sticker on the back of the car and were asking if we needed tickets to the show. A simultaneous and emphatic “YES!” was offered back to the car behind us. Both cars pulled off of Wisconsin Avenue to the Cathedral parking lot and began a transaction. Although the face value was $23 (those were the days), they offered us a pair for tickets under the covered pavilion roof of the venue $20. The stars were shining down upon us.
We fought traffic like knights in the crusades to the Holiday Inn and quickly checked into to our room. Before the days of GPS obviously, the hotel maintenance man offered us some handwritten directions to Merriweather Post Pavilion on a bar napkin. Although we were still running extremely late and knew we wouldn’t arrive in time to see the opening band, Ben Harper, we set out on the I-495 beltway to the show.
After finding a random parking deck close to music we could hear in the distance, which wasn’t at all intended for concert parking, we quickly exited the car and began following the sound. Pearl Jam’s set had already begun. We found ourselves running through a dense forest following the sound of “Hail, Hail.” We knew were close as the sound became louder and louder. Suddenly, out of breath from running, we came upon a clearing and what was evidently a back entrance to the venue. It wasn’t at all an actual audience entrance, but we flashed our tickets to the guard and he lets us in no questions asked. As “Animal” and “Given to Fly” echoed through the outdoor amphitheatre that reminded me of the ‘moon tower’ from Dazed and Confused, we searched for our seats. Upon finally finding them, we also were amazed to see that we were on row HH about 20-25 yards from the band. Not bad for $10 each.
As each song progressed, Pearl Jam sounded better and better. Through songs such as “Daughter,” “Corduroy,” and “Wishlist,” the addition of Matt Cameron had pumped new life into this band. Front-man Eddie Vedder, known for constantly changing the lyrics to the last verse of “Wishlist” again ad-libbed the last verse to fit the geographical location. He sang; “I wish I was the President so I could change my ways.” It was very appropriate being that in 1998 President Clinton was under attack from his own country over oral sex.
All of Pearl Jam’s gigs on the U.S. legs of its 1998 tour saw this re-invigorated rhythm section that also forced guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready to step up their games as well. McCready’s leads, particular in the slower songs such as “Immortality” and “Footsteps” were nothing less than Hendrix-esque. When he leans his head back and has his tattered 1959 Fender Strat in front of him, the audience is indeed witnessing something special. It’s undeniable that he is one of the greatest lead guitarists in rock.
Along with a new and improved sound in 1998, Pearl Jam’s stage setup grew a bit. They brought back the wide chandelier with the birds perched upon it back for this tour. Behind the band stood five tower-like torches in a straight line. One thing that Pearl Jam is known for is the lack of, and no need for, an expensive visual show with lasers, lights, and pyrotechnics like many rock bands use. The concert is about the music, not the show. This 1998 tour featured Pearl Jam’s experiment with a video screen behind them that displayed looped video stars, clouds, and water on certain songs. It wasn’t elaborate, but definitely something they had never done before.
Being that Pearl Jam changes their set list every night, the sequence of songs at Merriweather were well put together and a great sampling of their whole catalog at the time from Ten, to Yield, to b-sides. It’s also a rare occurrence for songs such as “Alive” and “Betterman” to appear in set lists in anything but an encore. These two came three songs away from the end of their main set. This was a pretty good indication that this audience was in for a very blistering or very unique encore (and Pearl Jam always does at least two if the venue allows them the time). There was a lot of energy on the stage. From Mike McCready absolutely shredding and killing every solo to Eddie Vedder falling around (maybe he had too much wine), the band was in outstanding form. “Betterman” was definitely one of the highlights of the set for two reasons. 1998 was the time where we had a mix of the ‘young and angry’ Eddie Vedder voice and the ‘older, wiser, and little brighter’ Eddie Vedder voice. A long like “Betterman” takes Vedder to both places rather than just one extreme or the other like “State of Love and Trust” or “Black.” The second reason is the ‘meat’ Matt Cameron threw down on his drum fills in 1998. “Betterman” just so happened to suddenly contain an 8-count paradiddle-diddle roll to bring the song into the “She loved him” line of the song. (This can be heard flawlessly on Pearl Jam’s 1998 tour compilation released in November 1998 entitled Live on Two Legs)
The old classic “Jeremy” and soon to be classic from Yield “Do the Evolution” closed out the main set and gave way to the lights going down and the band leaving the stage. While the capacity crowd chanted for the band to return, it was important for us to stop and look where we were; and laugh about how we got there. We bought two $10 tickets at a cathedral in the middle of a traffic jam, and are actually close enough to the band to see their facial expressions. The only thing we needed to make this more of a heaven on Earth was a Golden Corral buffet right in front of us!
The band stepped back out on the stage amidst a roar of applause and we heard the famous lines; “I seem to recognize your face. Haunting, familiar, yet I can’t seem to place it. Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name. Lifetimes are catching up with me….” It’s always a crowd favorite and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” is always a good choice to start an encore and re-engage the audience. Follow that with the frantic “Brain of J” and one can look back and see a sea of people banging their heads. As intense as that song was (and still is), it did not prepare us for what happened next.
The lights came down and the crowd grew quieter as Eddie Vedder by himself began the first notes of something nobody recognized or had heard before:
Vedder playing this pattern alone began to sing. “I Got a car. I got some gas. Let’s get out of here. Get out of here fast. Everyone’s so confused, so I stay in my room. If I go, I don’t to go alone. I hope you get this message, or you’re not home. I could be there in ten minutes or so. I got my things. We’ll make it up as we along. With you I could never be alone. Never be alone.” I looked at my friend Matt, and he looked at me. We had both actually teared up during Vedder’s improv. We wiped our eyes and agreed never to speak of it again and let the concert continue into “MFC” and “Rearviewmirror.”
An emotional version of “Black” ending with a Mike McCready solo so intense Samuel L. Jackson would have been jealous, kept this audience on its edge. With “Porch” closing out the encore, it was apparent Pearl Jam’s night wasn’t ending. They change set lists every night, but never close with “Porch.”
We were exhausted, excited, and filled with awe all at the same time as the lights went down. It’s a feeling that not many bands can give a listener. Being that their shows aren’t scripted, choreographed, or planned out months in advance, any particular audience on any given night can see one unique moment in history that has never happened before, and maybe never to be repeated. That’s what makes Pearl Jam special. They could come back out and do a second encore of Ramones covers and nobody would be surprised. They make their set lists sometimes minutes before starting the concert and make changes on the fly. Few people can guess or know what to expect from this band, definitely while sitting and waiting on a second encore.
As the band re-appeared on the stage at Merriweather, drummer Matt Cameron began playing a 1950’s-style pattern. Every drummer knows this pattern; it’s one of the first they ever learn when they learn to play a set. (Phonetically: boom CHACHA..boom CHA). The crowd was very, very caught off guard when Vedder uttered the words “Oh where, oh where can my baby be? The Lord took her away from me.” Yes, the end of the 1998 tour was the advent of Pearl Jam’s cover of Frank Wilson and the Cavalier’s classic “Last Kiss.” (Which later turned into a massive radio hit in the summer of 1999) Everyone there had heard that song a million times on oldies radio riding in the car with their mothers. It was obvious. Everyone in Merriweather Post Pavilion instinctively knew the lyrics and it became a sing along. It was a weird choice and a weird moment that seemed to somehow ‘click’ and actually work for Pearl Jam. Hard-core fans of the band gripe about the song to this day, but those are the ones that missed the point of the significance of “Last Kiss” to Pearl Jam’s career. What it did was allow them leverage. Suddenly, it was OK for them to write a song that isn’t angry or sad. They could actually do something ‘poppy’ or even ‘cheesy’ if they wanted to. That silly little experiment opened up a lot of doors for them musically.
Aside from a few exceptions, when an audience hears Mike McCready open the first notes of “Yellow Ledbetter,” they know they have reached the end of the night. Pearl Jam has the venue turn up the house lights so they can see the entire crowd every time they play this song (Which has become one of the band’s most well known tracks, yet never appeared on an album until their b-sides collection in 2003). The band left McCready on the stage along to finish the guitar outro to “Yellow Ledbetter” while the audience gave full support. Anyone who wasn’t standing, had to have been by this point.
We filed out of Merriweather Post Pavilion and searched the surrounding areas for my car. We came in through a forest, so we didn’t recognize our way out. Once we found the car, we easily drove away. We weren’t talking a lot, just taking it all in. Of course we had no idea where we were going and ended up in Baltimore, MD going through the same toll on I-95 four different times until almost sunrise the next morning. That tidbit is beside the point. Seeing Pearl Jam at any time gives the audience member a lot to take in. Pearl Jam can take one through every emotion possible in two or three hours from love, to anger, the rage, to emptiness, to loss, to malaise, to joy, or to empathy for another. It’s truly a great band to see. I was fortunate enough to see them three times in 1998, a year that they sounded better than they ever have; or have since. It was such a transitional period for them musically and personally and it came through in those concert dates throughout the summer and fall of 1998. It was the birth of the band that we see on the stage today still. It was also a triumph for those loyal fans who stuck with the band during those years when concert appearances were sparse.
Main Set: Hail Hail, Animal, Given to Fly, Daughter (I Believe in Miracles/WMA), Corduroy, Wishlist, Immortality, State of Love and Trust, Even Flow, Footsteps, Mankind, Alive, Betterman, Leatherman, Jeremy, Do the Evolution
Encore #1: Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town, Brain of J, Untitled (improv), MFC, Crazy Mary, Rearviewmirror, Black, Porch
Encore #2: Last Kiss, Yellow Ledbetter
The best known audio recording of this concert in existence can be found by clicking here.
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Dustin M Pardue