MINNEAPOLIS — After getting so big so fast, being a big part of a fleeting moment in trendy media hype and having so much self-destructiveness around it, Pearl Jam probably should not even still be here.
The band battled addictions early on, like seemingly every group out of Seattle in the early 1990s. It bucked critics and music snobs, who initially dismissed the group as a more corporate, less altruistic answer to Nirvana. It combated Ticketmaster, too, which wasn’t good for business at the time.
In more recent years, Pearl Jam has faced down maybe its biggest challenge of them all: staying relevant as a rock band even as its members aged into AARP eligibility.
“There aren’t a lot of bands that have hung around as long and as well as them — especially bands from their era and their scene,” said Twin Cities music scribe Steven Hyden, author of last year’s book “Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation.”
Not only is the quintet of “Alive” fame still very much around, it has some of the most in-demand tickets for any rock tour this year.
Eddie Vedder and his mostly all-original bandmates — ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron is the lone latecomer, and he’s been in tow since 1998 — kicked off their first stretch of 2023 U.S. dates at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday. They’re sticking around to play the arena again today. (Chalk up the breather night in between to their aforementioned aging.)
Those bootlegs, he said (and writes in his book), are just one of several signs of the famously flannel-clad band takings its cues from the kings of the tie-dye realm, the Grateful Dead.
“Even though they’re not a jam band, they learned from the Dead you don’t have to be relevant in the mainstream to remain successful,” Hyden explained. “What you need is this audience that will follow you wherever you go.”
With Hyden’s help, here’s a rundown of the major stepping stones Pearl Jam made after its massive ‘90s hype to remain such a popular road attraction in 2023.
1. Reeled in their overexposure. There was a year or two around 1992-93 when you couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing the video for “Jeremy” or “Even Flow” or you couldn’t open a music magazine without seeing a photo of Vedder climbing a lighting rig on stage.
“They made a very conscious shift at the end of the ‘90s to step away from all that,” Hyden said. They stopped making music videos and trying to court FM radio play. “They knew they would be playing a losing game trying to compete with the pop stars of the day,” Hyden explained, citing U2 as an example of a band who “rather unsuccessfully kept playing that game.”
2. Finally found the right drummer. After its “Spinal Tap”-like changes behind the drum kit in the early ‘90s, the band finally found the right man for the job before 1998’s tour for the “Yield” record. “They went through a lethal combination of tremendous success and a lot of inner-personal turmoil,” Hyden said, “and it really wasn’t until Matt came into the band that this sort of stability set in.”
3. Fought Ticketmaster, and for the most part lost. After battling the much-maligned mega-corporation for several years starting in 1994, the band had to go back to using Ticketmaster to sell tickets to some of its shows. But it gained a lot of respect and new fans through its high-profile efforts, including bassist Jeff Ament’s appearance before a U.S. House committee on the subject in 1994.
The fight also created more of a mystique and pent-up demand for PJ’s live shows. “Especially during the Ticketmaster fight, they weren’t this band you could rely upon to come to your town, because they were trying to play non-Ticketmaster venues,” Hyden said.
4. Learned to work at its own pace. Adding more mystique to its live shows, the band slowed down starting in the 2000s, producing albums less frequently and basically going on tour only when it wanted to. “They were recording and touring every year in the ‘90s, and that pace almost destroyed them,” Hyden said.
As its road schedule became less predictable — and the band’s live bootleg recordings became more sought after — Pearl Jam’s tours started to resemble Grateful Dead outings in the way fans began traveling to other cities to see them perform. “So all the tickets being sold [for St. Paul] aren’t just people who live here. And a lot of people here will probably go see them in Chicago, too, and so forth,” Hyden said.
5. Still fighting a good fight. Tickets to the group’s first Minnesota gigs in nine years were sold through Ticketmaster, which the arena is contracted to use. But the tickets were all priced the same: about $161 after taxes and fees. That fair and affordable approach can certainly be seen as one reason tickets sold out quickly. Also, the only seats now available on Ticketmaster — many still available at press time — are “face value exchange tickets” being resold by original ticket buyers, and that flies in the face of dynamic-pricing schemes used by other bands.
(The Eagles, by comparison, still have lots of $350-plus “verified resale” tickets and $500-$1,200 “official platinum” seats for their pair of Xcel Center shows in November.)
6. Making records? Eh. The gap between Pearl Jam records stretched to seven years before the band finally dropped its latest record, “Gigaton,” near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. It’s actually one of the band’s best records, but it still pales in comparison to what fans expect from the live shows. As Hyden rather bluntly put it, “I actually don’t think Pearl Jam is great at making albums. If you’re going to assess where they rank among all the great rock acts, you have to factor in them as a live band first and foremost, kind of like the Who.”
And the Dead, of course.