Remember that old elementary school standard, the "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay?
Well, Pearl Jam offers its own twist on the assignment with "On Tour Europe 2000," a 25-volume series documenting the group's most recent European tour. That's right - 25 complete concerts, each offered on two CDs packed bootleg-style in plain brown wrappers with a poorly-stamped title on the cover.
Apparently, the idea is to beat bootleggers at their own game while giving American fans a wish-you-were-here glimpse of what the European fans heard. Each album was recorded directly off the band's soundboard and is being offered at a price below what regular albums sell for (depending on discounts, $12-$14).
However, "On Tour Europe 2000" isn't quite the documentary effort it seems, although it begins with the band's first European show of the year, at the Estadio do Restelo in Lisbon, Portugal on May 23, it stops short of the final show, ending the series with a June 29 performance at the Spectrum in Oslo, Norway.
On the following day, June 30, the band was at the Roskilde festival, just outside Copenhagen, Denmark. Midway through the band's set, the crowd rushed the stage, crushing eight fans to death. A ninth victim died from his injuries several days later.
An investigation by Danish police exonerated the band, but Pearl Jam was devastated by the tragedy, and according to reports nearly broke up after the incident. No doubt band members wish the tour really had ended the way this series does, with a raucous Neil Young cover in Oslo.
Even without Roskilde, these 25 albums offer a fascinating glimpse of the Pearl Jam phenomenon. This, after all, is a band just coming off the biggest hit of its career, "Last Kiss," and yet performs the song at just seven shows.
Indeed, not only does the band offer a different selection of songs at each show, but it barely seems to play favorites at all. Sometimes, it'll play such early hits as "Even Flow," "Jeremy" and "Black." At others, it emphasizes more current fare, playing mainly songs from its most recent studio recording, "Binaural." In some shows, it almost seems as if the band is simply playing it by ear, feeling out the crowd and choosing songs to suit that particular audience.
There's a sense of serendipity to many of these concerts, a sense that almost anything could happen. Toward the end of a rendition of "Daughter" at the Spodek Arena in Katowice Poland (Volume 15, for those keeping score), the band vamps, then works its way into a rangy groove.
It sounds as if we're being set up for one of Mike McCready's note-shredding guitar solos, but then singer Eddie Vedder begins to croon, "We don't need no education ..." In an instant, the band has launched into a truncated run through Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall (Pt. II)" - hardly the sort of tune you'd expect to find in Pearl Jam's repertoire.
Then again, this series is littered with unlikely cover songs. Arthur Alexander's "Soldier of Love" turns up on three set lists, most notably the show at London's Wembley Arena (Vol. 5). Then there's the totally surprising - and remarkably convincing - "Baba O'Riley" that turns up toward the end of the concert at the Sporthalle in Hamburg, Germany (Vol. 23). Even without the keyboards, the violin, or Keith Moon, Pearl Jam captures the reckless ambition of The Who's original.
Some cover versions come with history, which may leave non-local listeners feeling slightly puzzled. For instance, just before the band caps its performance at the Maritime Museum in Stockholm with a fervent rendition of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," Vedder tells the crowd: 'The last time I think we were here, the next guy - this guy called Neil Young - caught the speakers on fire."
How's that again?
Well, the last time Pearl Jam played the Maritime Museum (back in 1993, just before the release of "Vs."), the band was opening for Neil Young. Young's backing band at the time was Booker T. & the MG's, but for his final number, the older rocker brought out members of Pearl Jam to join in on "Rockin' in the Free World." And as they played, the speaker stack to the right of the stage caught on fire.
But unless you'd been there, or were deeply into Pearl Jam concert lore, you'd have no way of knowing what Vedder was talking about.
In a sense, though, that Young anecdote speaks to both the series' greatest virtue and its principal failing. For listeners who are die-hard Pearl Jam fans, "On Tour Europe 2000" is the ultimate souvenir, offering better sound than any fan-made concert tape, and without the inconvenience of having to track down somebody who recorded the specific show you happened to want. (Nor does it hurt, on an ethical level, that the series is entirely artist-approved).
But it will be a daunting task for casual fans to figure out which of the 25 shows to choose. After all, you're looking at more than 60 hours of music here, and with only minimal differences (beyond song selection) between shows.
If you want a suggestion, start with Vol. 14, the concert at Paegas Arena in Praha, Czech Republic. Not only does the set list underscore the strengths of the band's recent material, but the show is buoyed by what Vedder calls the best audience of the tour to date.
Of course, there were still 12 shows to go at that point, but hey - ya gotta start somewhere.
'On Tour Europe 2000'
From Pearl Jam, 25 double-CD live albums
Sun score (average): ***