Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Live on Ten Legs: The TSIS Review

by stip

There is no place in the world I’d rather be than at a Pearl Jam show, excluding my wedding and possibly the birth of my children (we’ll see). Yet I rarely listen to Pearl Jam bootlegs (I don’t know if that makes me more or less suited to review a live compilation). They are primarily a studio band for me, and it is only a very small and select handful of songs (Satan’s Bed from Atlanta 94, Even Flow from Uniondale 03, Porch from the unplugged, maybe one or two others) that ever make it into my regular listening rotation. I think this is because live Pearl Jam is something that needs to be experienced , rather than listened to. The music is felt as much as it is heard, and this has been notoriously hard to capture, even on the best bootlegs. Pearl Jam has a reputation for being one of the finest live bands around today, perhaps one of the best ever, and it’s this intangible factor that makes the live experience so compelling. There are plenty of bands that can play better and singers that can sound better, although perhaps not with Pearl Jam’s consistency. The varied set lists are great, but that’s there for the camp followers. It doesn’t explain the mass appeal. There’s something else there, something that comes from but transcends the music.

That’s what Live On Ten legs has to capture, and that’s a tall order.

The overall sound quality is much better than what we’ve gotten on recent bootlegs, and the song selection was well chosen. Nothing is repeated from LO2L and that’s a ballsy move in itself. Are there any other bands who’ve released live compilations that refuse to play the same hit twice? (that’s only semi-rhetorical—are there?) Given the fact that they’re not duplicating songs, and understandably wanting to draw a bit more (but not much more) from their most recent record and their biggest record (and Ten was underrepresented on LO2L) there’s a nice cross section of songs that faithfully reproduces the diversity of a typical Pearl Jam set list, right down to the random covers. The disc does a particularly good job capturing Eddie at his modern day best, the way his voice sounds like a damp fire—raging and sputtering and refusing to go out. Plus they seemed to pick songs where he wasn’t really overdoing his somewhat irritating modern vocal affectations. My one complaint is that the songs never quite feel loud enough, immersive enough, to begin to reproduce the experience of being there live

The record begins with a cover of Joe Strummer’s Arms Aloft. It’s a strong cover and it faithfully captures the spirit of the original (and I never noticed how much Eddie sings like Joe Strummer these days). The band is clearly having fun, and it’s a nice reminder of just how great a cover band Pearl Jam is, how much they clearly believe in the power of music and celebrate the majesty of their heroes. But Arms Aloft also feels a bit out of place. Pearl Jam concerts almost always begin with a ‘statement’—a song that not only announces that the band is here, but that the audience is in for a journey, something intense and larger than themselves. This is almost too playful, too casual. It seems better suited to a second encore, when there’s nothing left to prove and it’s there’s some space for fun for fun’s sake. At first I found myself wishing they had included one of their bread and butter covers, but this almost feels like a gift, something unexpected and surprising. I had never heard them play this one before, and it’s always nice to hear something new.

It feels like the disc really begins with the opening notes of World Wide Suicide. Here is the sense of movement, the sense of importance, that sets the listener up for a ride. It feels frantic without feeling rushed—like it has to get something out before it loses hold of what it was (rather than rushing to be done so we can move on to something else). The outro is particularly strong, with Eddie’s snarling, sarcastic vocals and the band’s furious playing. This is one of my all time favorite Pearl Jam songs, and one that has always frustrated me because I had yet to hear a live version that really captures the anger and hurt and fuck it all attitude of the studio version. But this is probably the best live performance of the song I’ve heard. I wish there was a little more from S/T on the comp, but WWS is able to carry the torch for the record.

Animal sounds great following World Wide Suicide. This is a song I want to hear at every show I attend, and while this isn’t the best version of this song I’ve ever heard, it has the churning intensity that makes Animal feel surprisingly timeless. This is the first moment in the set where the audience really takes center stage, and that’s a key element in capturing the actual live experience—just how interactive and in sync audience and band are—the way they feed each off of each other. It’s nice to see them actually pay some attention to trying to capture this

I like how they start this compilation off with 5 fast songs and the way each one builds off the energy of the previous one. It really helps lift Got Some. This is a song that sounds a little anemic on Backspacer, but what sounds exhausted on the record has a breathy kind of power to it, like you’re trying to keep your running partner going in the last stages of a marathon, when the finish line isn’t in sight, but close enough to imagine. As always Matt and Jeff are the heroes here, but the whole band makes sure the song never lets up.

State of Love and Trust was a pleasant surprise—not so much its inclusion but how good it is. The guitars have a sharpness and a heaviness to them that is so often missing, and Eddie thankfully sings the actual lyrics instead of the terrible ‘both sides of the bed’ change he inexplicably insists on working into the live versions. They do an especially fine job capturing the absurd playful menace of the bridge and outro, and again the band is playing the hell out of the song. If only it was louder. They’re not doing themselves justice. If they’re trying to smack me in the face (and they are)let them do it.

I Am Mine is one of my all time favorite Pearl Jam songs (up there with WWS and Comatose as my favorite things the band did this decade), and another song where they never managed to reproduce the incredible atmosphere of the studio version. Still, they come closer here than I’ve ever heard them do so before. It captures the sense of searching and discovery at the heart of the song. I Am Mine finally sounds like the journey it is, and Mike’s outro solo, if not quite as cathartic as the studio version (one of the best 10 second blocks in the whole catalog), is still really good.

Unthought Known is one of the few places where I think the compilation stumbles a bit. The placement works well, and I never noticed quite how nicely this song complements I Am Mine. One of the cool things about a show is that you get to see songs interact with each other and be a part of each other’s stories. Eddie sounds pretty good, but he stumbles a little bit (although he recovers) during the two most critical moments in the song (gems and rhinestones and ‘you’ll be no one’s rival). Since the rest of the song is a little thin (Unthought Known works better as a solo song) it is critical that they nail these two moments, since they have to carry the rest of the song. The band plays everything else here with gusto, the problem is that Unthought Known is a little underwritten, and so what they’re playing doesn’t feel essential.

And this comes up in a few places, but I’ll say it here. We HAVE to stop with the unnecessary handclaps. We sound like assholes and it’s unnecessary and distracting. Cheer, scream, stamp your feet, move around—but stop with the clapping.

I was a little wary when I saw Rearviewmirror on the tracklist This is a beast of a song on Vs. but live it loses the tight burning focus it has on the record and becomes more about the noodling bridge and the pounding outro. The problem is that this really needs the lights, especially the strobe lights at the end. This is probably the only Pearl Jam staple I’d say this about, but RVM needs its props and it doesn’t have them. They usually lose me with the live improvs but they do a good job here until the end, where it seems like they lose track of each other for a little bit. But they rally, and by the end I can see the lights.

The Fixer is a great live song, and it sounds good here (but I bet there’s a better version floating around). The ayes and uh-huh’s that start the song, which feel out of place on the record, feel especially out of place live, but once we’re past that the music has the warm fuzziness that makes the studio version so catchy, and I wish I was there to sing the yeah yeah yeah part with everyone else. What I don’t understand is why they speed up so many of their other songs and seem to actually slow down The Fixer. If there’s one song to speed up, it’s the Fixer.

I think the Unthought Known—RVM—Fixer run is probably the low point of the record. It’s maybe counterintuitive to expect Nothing As It Seems to really pick things up again since it’s such a slow dirge, but they really nail this one. Nothing As It Seems is almost entirely dependent on whether or not Mike can reproduce the incredible soundscapes he creates on Binaural, and he does an amazing job here. It’s just a joy to listen to him (and everyone is incredible on the bridge)

Again, WTF are handclaps doing here? Just sit on your hands and soak this one in. Some songs invite you to actively participate. Some songs ask you to appreciate from a distance. This is one of them.

In Hiding, while a middling Pearl Jam song for me, needs to show up in their sets more than it does. It’s an easy one for the band to play, easy for Eddie to sing, and there aren’t many moments in their catalog that bridge the gap between audience and band more than the chorus of In Hiding. This version was particularly good. The song feels a little more fleshed out than the studio version—it has a richness and sophistication to it (musically—although it helps that Eddie doesn’t sing the juvenile ‘I was high as hell’ lyrical variation) that isn’t often there, and it’s always fun to hear Eddie cut out and have the audience fill in without any prompting because they’ve been singing their hearts out all along.

Just Breathe is a gorgeous song, and it’s kind of amazing how intimate they can make this one sound in an arena. The chorus is maybe a little busy (it is in the studio version too) but the rest of this song aches with quiet romance. This is vastly superior to the live version they used in the video.

They’re more successful with Jeremy than they are with Rearviewmirror. Maybe it’s because Jeremy depends on an audience/band interaction that can be more easily reproduced than the strobe light effects at the end of RVM. While both songs live or die primarily on the strength of the outro, Jeremy is a more interesting journey, and from the very start the band gives the song the fullness it needs to give the listener the immersive tunnel vision—the way it starts you racing down a long hallway towards an unknown destiny—that makes the payoff at the end so intense. But like I said, Jeremy lives and dies by its outro , and the ending here is magnificent, with band and audience (who I would have liked to hear even more from since there such an important part of the song) fully committed to making it work. It has a great sing along, and the ominous final moments, the sound of the door closing on someone’s life, gives me the chills it is supposed to.

Public Image is in the right place. This is where a playful cover belongs in the set. I can see why they had to separate Arms Aloft and Public Image though. The two songs are too similar to place back to back. Still, since they already had Arms Aloft(which is the better song and better performance, although this one is fine) I would have preferred a different cover that occupies a different emotional space.

Spin the Black Circle may be the weakest song on the compilation. As with The Fixer, this one feels slower than it is, and strangely defanged. How can such an intense song sound so casual? It’s not like they can’t nail this one, since they repeatedly do a great job on songs like Blood or Go that are musically more intense and probably no harder for Eddie to sing. And unlike a song like Not For You, it’s not like the change in tone is offset by making the song a communal celebration (the point of Not For You these days, after all, is that it is for us). Maybe I’m too hard on the song. The band sounds great and Eddie actually gives the song the croaking energy it needs, but I still can’t help but feel like it’s been neutered somehow. Maybe it’s just me.

I really felt the absence of Porch and Alive on LO2L, not just because these are two of my favorite songs, but because they are my definitive set closers (sorry Black). It’s nice to see them show up. Porch is a demanding song to play live, since it needs to keep simultaneously producing and sustaining a feeling of anticipation AND release, and they do a good job here (musically especially) pulling it off. It helps that they were careful to make sure the jam in the middle lasted long enough to be interesting without starting to drag (a frequent issue I have with RVM and occasionally with Porch).

Porch, like Alive and Given To Fly, is a song that martyrs itself, and even more than the other two its success is ultimately based on the resurrection that comes at the end of the journey back. That’s why I miss Eddie’s improving at the end of Porch. Even if the substance wasn’t there, the words felt like they had a kind of supernatural wisdom to them. But we do get a sing along, which invites the (unfortunately muted) audience –and to a lesser extent the listener—to be a part of the climactic rebirth that is the song’s finale. I guess you know if a song was successful if you find yourself wishing you were there for it, and I wish I was there for this one.

I rarely listen to Alive and Porch back to back since there are so many great songs in between them, so I never really thought about how similar a role these two songs play in the live set. Following Porch with Alive is almost redundant, but since they’re both monster songs who cares? Alive is maybe the hardest song to really capture on a bootleg because the live experience, especially the ending, is so incredibly immersive and cathartic. It’s like being born again, or the closest an atheist is going to get. So while the rest of the song sounds really good it almost doesn’t matter. No matter how good the performance (and it sounds great here, animated and important) I feel like I’m killing time until the ending. The Alive solo (on the record) is my favorite moment in all of music, but since Mike plays it differently live (it’s designed to keep time as much as it is to be an awesome solo) what’s really going to matter here is how well the boot captures the experience of being there, the way the audience invests itself and, for those few minutes, looses any of sense of who it is, reborn in that perfect moment. No bootleg could reproduce that in its entirety, but they give it a game try here. I wish the audience was louder in the mix because you could really tell this was an incredible performance.

And while I personally prefer to see a show close with Indifference or Baba O’Riley (or even RITFW), Yellow Ledbetter eels right. This is how the disc needs to end. While the studio Ledbetter is a bittersweet farewell, live it’s a warm embrace, a loving hug goodbye, and they manage to capture that here, especially with the bridge, which is about as good as I’ve ever heard it sound. Yellow Ledbetter, the way they play it live, runs the risk of sounding self-indulgent when you’re not actually there, but they actually mange to successful transport you into the arena more with this one than any other song on the compilation, and more than any Ledbetter I’ve yet to hear. I actually found myself feeling sad that the disc was coming to an end, like the show was ending and I’d have to wait another year (East Coast!) to feel this way again. I guess you can’t ask for a better way to end a record.

Ultimately Live on Ten Legs can’t recapture the feel of being there, but I’m not sure that’s possible, and they come really close, closer I think than Live on Two Legs. Live on Two Legs may be a better collection of songs (in terms of both song and performance), and it captures the band at the height of their game, but Live on Two Legs always felt like a compilation to me, a group of disparate songs thrown together . Live on Ten Legs, while also a collection of random songs, felt more like a show, and one that, by the end, I really really wished I was at. By that measure, perhaps the most important one, this was a true success.