Kicking off what’s sure to be a thorough celebration of Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary year, Live on Ten Legs features 18 live tracks recorded throughout the band’s 2003-2010 world tours, remastered and newly remixed by longtime band engineer Brett Eliason. While a moderate sampling of the energy that makes a Pearl Jam show such an electric-emotion overdrive is evident within the 77 minutes, as a retrospective of the previous seven years the album falls sadly short of conveying the full scope of cathartic exhilaration an actual live Pearl Jam concert experience tends to possess.
My personal affection for the band has resulted in inner conflict about this release, because it’s an exercise in grand delusion not to call Live On Ten Legs what it is: a live compilation of material that’s been released already, in soundboard quality, for the fans that voraciously consume every piece and release Pearl Jam has to offer. After all, what selling point does the casual “Yeah, I liked the first two albums” fan, or the die hards for that matter, find in yet another recording of "Jeremy," of "Alive" or hell, even sacred show-closer "Yellow Ledbetter"?
Whereas previous live compilation Live on Two Legs carried a beautiful untitled precursor to the fast-driving anthem "MFC," two uncommon covers provide the left-hook spark, with varying effect. Opener "Arms Aloft" gives beautiful flight to Joe Strummer’s heartstrumming original with The Mescaleros, a match in seamless congruence with Pearl Jam’s intensely visceral soul-spark ethic. The track’s in keeping with the band’s career-long tendency to open their albums with searing rockers (save two – No Code and Riot Act), a thrilling introduction for any occasion.
The decision to include second cover "Public Image" is peculiar, however, in that the song is an obnoxiously faithful rendition of Johnny Rotten’s spazzy Public Image Ltd. original. Sure, it’s one of those just-plain-fun curveball moments that contributes to the band’s inimitable live experience, but it doesn’t translate to record, and the high-register monotony of the melody is a waste of frontman Eddie Vedder’s propensity for vocal nuance.
Though the album features four “new” songs – released on the band’s 2009 Backspacer album – an emphasis on early material (eight tracks are from the first three years of Pearl Jam’s 20-year existence) overrides the fresh vitality the new covers usher in. The inclusion of early-90s radio overkill champion "Jeremy" is blatantly inexcusable, and could’ve been easily switched out for great strength in unknown sluggers such as "Alone," the haunting-strobe heart power of "You Are" or the pinch-me-I’m-dreaming reunion with Chris Cornell in Santa Barbara 2003 for a version of "Reach Down" that set the clocks back two decades and obliterated expectations of the eternally-awaited Temple of the Dog reunion.
The problem here is that the album doesn’t productively challenge the attentive fan, who’s guaranteed to have a few live-show song collages among their mix CDs far more compelling than the Live on Ten Legs compilation. We now have an inexhaustible archive of officially released Pearl Jam soundboard recordings, from which fans have made countless “best of” live mixes of their own. From this, the critical superfan can suggest a great many alternatives to the present tracklist, superior performances which don’t feel rushed and showcase one of the greatest live bands in existence.
Additionally, Pearl Jam Radio has been launched on Sirius/XM, focusing solely and specifically on showcasing the band’s live-show prowess, further establishing the general redundancy of such a retrospective compilation.
As far as remarkable "Worldwide Suicide" versions go, PJ’s AOL Sessions performance of the song was an incendiary, barking call to awareness. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the rendition showcased here, aside from its unremarkable & rather hurried delivery. A solid Animal follows, though we’ve heard it all before – and with far more fire.
Matt Cameron’s machine-gunning kit intro to "Got Some" grabs the balls, and the performance itself is superb, a highlight on the record. However, Vedder simply sounds breathless through several of the songs, particularly "State of Love and Trust," half-stepping the signature intonation and intensity that fans were originally drawn to like moths to a volcanic eruption. Alternately, his pacing on the rushed "I Am Mine" detracts from the song’s post-9/11 reaffirmation of self, though not quite enough to drown out the underlying message.
It’s common for bands to up the BPMs in live performance, but while Cameron’s kit-slugging tendencies and propensity for accelerating the rhythm may lend the band’s sound a punkier punch that Vedder so shamelessly adores, it ultimately sacrifices space within the songs that hold great potential for deeper color and undertones throughout the music. Half the time, it seems as if the rest of the band is just trying to keep up. Having witnessed the rotation of drummers over the years, the comparison ultimately doesn’t lean in Cameron’s favor, songwriting contributions nonwithstanding.
The typically creeping opening to soul-blooming "Unthought Known" instead sets in at a near-gallop, the audience setting a quick metronomic clap pace to Vedder’s hastened strumming. The song is an album highlight both here and on Backspacer, a heart-soaring tune of encouragement to realize one’s own potential to rise above self-inflicted shackles, a common lyrical design in the Pearl Jam universe.
"Rearviewmirror" suffers from the same rushed pacing, though the late-game breakdown is a glorious little jam despite McCready’s horribly truncated solo (two seconds long at the four minute mark). By now the speeding offense has become flagrant; "Nothing as it Seems" is criminally accelerated, though still a gripping rendition that provides a perspective of evolution between the band’s earlier tracks and their more recent work. After a snarling flex of "Spin The Black Circle," the slow-strut boil of Vedder’s intro to "Porch" serves an enthralling redesign of the classic Ten track, exploding into full gallop three beats after the final “would you hit me?” McCready gets his due here, unleashing a furiously torrential mid-song solo that would do his hero (Hendrix) proud.
Live-staple show capper "Yellow Ledbetter" still retains its slow dance happy-tears closure for anyone who’s stuck around through the highs and lows of the live compilation that is Live On Ten Legs. It’s here that unconditional defenders and reluctant cynics lay down their arms and allow themselves feel the spine chills of a five-and-a-half minute wave goodbye that every fan knows by soul, despite ever-shifting lyrics. There’s no accurate text portrayal of the sensation of being on the floor of the arena, house lights on, clapping along as Ed’s meandering, reluctant goodbye gives way to Stone’s soft acoustic breakdown strum and, finally, once more, McCready’s gorgeous finishing solo lead.
Moments of true musical magic interwoven with missed opportunity and a very real need to let the songs breathe leave a sense of uneven quality to Live On Ten Legs, though ultimately any live compilation of the band’s work, even pulled at random, is a testament to the greatness of the Gossard, Ament, McCready, Vedder, Cameron and (sometimes) Gaspar collective.
Live on Ten Legs will be available internationally from Island Records in digital, CD and deluxe versions. The deluxe version will include a CD, double LP package, four mini-poster reprints, five live photos and a tour laminate (because what ultimate fanboy collection is complete without a fake tour laminate?).
CraveOnline Rating: 6 out of 10