This feature originally ran in The Standard-Times on July 27, 2003.
By Nick Tavares
Nick Tavares saw Pearl Jam five times over a two-week span. Andrew T. Gallagher/The Standard-Times
Aug. 27, 1996. I was 14. My dad drove me to Circuit City, where I purchased a cassette that would alter the next seven years of my life.
Pearl Jam's "No Code" had been released that day, and that afternoon I settled into my room, put my headphones on, and never looked back.
I got into the band relatively late, as far as the mainstream is concerned. "No Code" was the first album Pearl Jam released that didn't rocket off of the shelves. The group was already four years deep into a self-imposed exile from MTV, and two years removed from a failed battle with Ticketmaster.
But this album was like nothing I'd ever heard before. It was a little strange, off-the-cuff, and incredibly daring. It was just sounded so different to me. It was so real. There was no pretense behind it, there were no digital loops or pre-recorded samples, no smoke or mirrors, just five guys in a room giving it their all.
It would be their first album not to make a lasting impression on the charts, but I took hold of it and never let go.
I've since amassed a pretty healthy collection of Pearl Jam CDs, albums, cassettes, singles, videos, DVDs and over 200 bootleg concerts, but the last piece of the puzzle was missing. I had yet to see Pearl Jam live.
I was too young to go on my own during the 1998 Yield Tour, and I couldn't get tickets when they came around in 2000.
So I planned something of a pilgrimage for myself this summer. I'd catch five shows in 10 days to make up for lost time.
There would be two shows at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, two shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and then one more back in Mansfield.
The anticipation in the weeks prior was near maddening. I had been following the tour by listening to every show on my computer, which was up to 62 by the time of the first Mansfield show.
I also immersed myself in the seven studio albums, especially their most recent, "Riot Act," which I had listened to roughly 35 times the week it was released. The thought of finally experiencing Pearl Jam in person was both thrilling and frightening.
Arriving at the Tweeter Center parking lot just after 2 p.m. July 2, the day of the first show, I went to pick up my fan club tickets at the will-call window. I was meeting my friend Jeff afterwards, who was having a tailgate party in the lot. Around 3:40, after standing in line for about an hour and a half, Jeff called me by cell phone, in hysterics. I could barely understand what he was trying to say, but he eventually spit it out.
He had just met Eddie Vedder. He got to meet the front man, and here I was, still waiting in line for my seats. I was happy for him, but I was more than a little disappointed that I had missed my chance. Or so I thought.
On the way back to the parking lot, just after 4 p.m., I couldn't believe what I saw. There he was, Eddie Vedder sitting on his bicycle, talking to a couple of fans.
If I didn't know better, I'd say he was a real person. I was also taken aback by how short he was. I could never consider myself tall by any stretch, but I found myself looking down at him a little bit.
He was very nice and personable, too, taking the time to ask everyone where they were from, and I even got to talk to him about Neil Young for a couple of seconds before he took off again on his bicycle.
Meeting the writer and singer of my favorite songs was thrilling enough. Then I remembered that I'd be seeing the group in less than four hours.
The venue lights went down a little past 8:45, and with little more than a blue-tinted glow on the stage, the band walked out and started the evening off with "Oceans," a rarely played gem from their debut album "Ten." It was at this moment I realized how unprepared I was for what I was about to experience. One highlight was "Present Tense," a slow, rolling number with Mike McCready on guitar and Vedder on vocals that turns into an intense five-piece jam towards the end. The show was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
In the middle of the set, Vedder announced to the crowd that the band would be trying something different for their three Boston-area shows They would play every song in their current repertoire without repeating a song.
I nearly dropped to the floor. Pearl Jam has been known to radically change the setlist night after night, but this was unprecedented. I couldn't believe my luck.
After two extended encores and over two hours of music, I walked out of the pavilion completely elated. I couldn't fathom how the band could ever top this performance, but over the next three shows, each would prove to be just a little bit better than the last.
The second night in Mansfield saw the crowd screaming along to a blistering cover of the Who's "Baba O'Riley" with the houselights on. Night one in New York saw the crowd and the band physically shake Madison Square Garden during "Do The Evolution," which, according to an arena technician, had only been accomplished by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Iron Maiden and Bruce Springsteen in the past.
The shows in New York were each three-hour marathon sets, with over 17,000 fan club members in attendance each night.
For the third show in Mansfield, the band took the stage early, at 6:30, in order to make good on their promise to perform the entire catalog. The group kicked off an hour-long acoustic set with a moving version of "Long Road" and dusted off "All Those Yesterdays," a track that hadn't been played live for over five years.
Opening act Sleater-Kinny then took the stage, and around 8:45 Pearl Jam returned for their main set, opening with "Can't Keep" from "Riot Act."
By 11:30, now 30 minutes over the Tweeter Center's curfew, the band had powered through every remaining song, leaving the crowd in a frenzy. Ed and company returned to perform "Yellow Ledbetter," a 1992 B-side that had actually closed the second Boston show, in order to satisfy the crowd.
At 4 hours and 45 songs, it was the longest show in their career, and an incredible climax to my own adventure. Each member of the band had an ear-to-ear grin along with everyone in attendance, save for the ushers and security personnel.
All told, I heard 102 different songs over five nights and 1,420 hours. Fifty-four songs were played only once. Only six songs were played as many as three times. I left the tour with seven stickers, three T-shirts, two posters, one tour program, one journal filled with minute details of each show, and a dozen new friends I had made at the five concerts, all of whom were undertaking a similar experience as me.
It was because of the band that I made friends in seven states over 10 days. Thanks to Pearl Jam, I now have a lifetime of memories to relive every time I listen to the music. And revisiting each night is easy, since I have recordings of each concert I attended.
And I can't wait to do it all again on the next tour.
Nick Tavares, 21, is a correspondent for The Standard-Times sports department.
This story appeared on Page C3 of The Standard-Times on July 27, 2003.