Remembering when Seattle’s biggest band played a local record store.
All Eddie Vedder needed to do was play some air guitar. Pearl Jam’s management was ambivalent about letting the band play a show at Easy Street Records in West Seattle, even though no one would have to travel. For some bands, it’s actually easier to play a stadium than a record store: Their gear setup and security standards are outfitted to accommodate tens of thousands of fans at one time. If enough people catch wind of the private performance, the situation can become outright dangerous.
But as Vedder stood in the middle of his local record store, strumming at nothing while anonymous customers milled around him, he had no such reservations. “This’ll be just fine,” he said. And you don’t want to say no to Eddie Vedder unless you absolutely have to.
Fourteen years ago today, Pearl Jam played a surprise, 16-song set in-store at Easy Street, for about 150 representatives from the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS). Seven of those songs were released on the 2006 EP Live at Easy Street, distributed on CD exclusively to those very independent stores. Two weeks ago, as 2019’s official Record Store Day Ambassadors, Pearl Jam issued that EP on vinyl for the very first time, driving thousands of fans around the world to visit their local record stores and grab the collectible before it was gone. They can’t even get the CD anymore — both of its pressings have sold out, and it’s Easy Street Records’ highest-selling title to date.
The band had long been frequent patrons of the store. Adam Tutty, Easy Street’s Receiving Manager, had grown accustomed to seeing his heroes during a day’s work, as they shopped for new music. “Half the reason I moved to Seattle was so I wouldn’t have to go across the country to see” Pearl Jam, said Tutty in 2012. But he got more than live shows out of the move. Soon, Tutty was smoking cigarettes with Vedder behind the store and selling Cheap Trick records to guitarist Mike McCready. “I always think back to my 19, 20-year-old self,” he says, and “what the hell he would think about all this.”
Fans themselves, the band sensed in 2005 that something more than their patronage was needed to boost the brick-and-mortar ideal. Record stores were “on the edge of the cliff” during the early 2000s, Easy Street’s President Matt Vaughan recently said in conversation with Vedder and Kevin Cole of Seattle’s KEXP radio station. The hegemony of new digital platforms like Napster and iTunes, not to mention big chain retailers, had put independent stores in a bind. McCready and Vedder, said Vaughan, used to ask when they came by if the store was going to survive.
With Easy Street slated to host CIMS’ 10th anniversary convention, the band felt that an in-store show could serve as the ultimate endorsement of the Coalition’s efforts. Tutty says that he relayed the band’s idea to Tim Bierman, manager of Pearl Jam’s official fan club, when they ran into each other while out one night. Bierman’s “face lit up,” says Tutty, and he said something like, “Fuck yeah, that’d be awesome.” All he had to do was run it by the band’s manager, Kelly Curtis.
In his recent conversation with Vedder, Vaughan told a different story. The band encouraged him, he said, to draft a letter to Curtis asking the band to play Easy Street, and they said they’d play dumb and sound excited once Curtis approached them about it. Curtis came by the store to have lunch with Vaughan, and was close to putting the kibosh on the whole thing, given the host of logistical challenges. That’s where Vedder and his imaginary guitar came in.
But Curtis wasn’t wrong, in the end: Making the show happen was anything but easy. For one thing, Vaughan, Tutty, and the manager of Easy Street’s other location (since closed) had to keep it entirely secret from their colleagues for several months. And then there was the space, which wasn’t exactly designed as a venue for Seattle’s biggest band. The night before, Vedder pulled up to Easy Street to join Vaughan and Tutty for beers. He found them frantically packing up the store’s entire inventory, to make room for the audience. Instructed to sit on the sidelines and have his beer, Vedder offered his driveway as storage space until after the show, and so it would serve.
The set Pearl Jam would play the next night would be on the heavier side: Of the 16 songs played, there was exactly one ballad — “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” from 1993’s Vs. — placed squarely in the middle at number eight, as a kind of breather from the punk fury of the band’s other selections. It’s an unusual model for a Pearl Jam set. Beginning with their very first show, when the band was still known as Mookie Blaylock, Pearl Jam often like to open slow, creating dynamic tension and allowing the first heavier songs to hit harder. And while Pearl Jam have always been emphatically a hard rock band, many critics and fans believe that the band’s best work falls in the ballad department.
Easy Street could have been that kind of show. As Tutty transferred the store into boxes, Vedder asked him what he’d like to hear the next night. Tutty answered as many fans would: that his favorite song was “Release,” Vedder’s elegy for his late father he never knew. The song is, without doubt, Pearl Jam’s most classic show opener. It has kicked off a startling share of the band’s most storied sets — including their first ever as Mookie Blaylock — as Vedder steps onto the stage and reaches right out to the audience, begging them to help release him from his grief.
Vedder thought about it for a few seconds. “That’s not really what we’re going for,” he ultimately told Tutty. Maybe something “more upbeat.” Tutty countered with “1/2 Full” and “Porch” — the first a bluesy, apocalyptic stomper from 2002’s Riot Act (then Pearl Jam’s most recent album); the second a frantic rager from their 1991 debut Ten, and a song that had inspired some of Vedder’s most iconic moments on (and off) stage. “I didn’t think twice of it,” says Tutty. He didn’t even realize that, the next night, the band had opened with “1/2 Full” and closed with “Porch” until Vedder pointed it out to him after the show.
Other notable performances from the set included the love letter to vinyl “Spin the Black Circle,” a cover of X’s “The New World” featuring X’s own John Doe, and the then-unreleased “Crapshoot,” later renamed “Comatose” on Pearl Jam’s 2006 self-titled album. And while Pearl Jam had already played the 62-second “Lukin” more than 100 times prior, it took on added resonance at Easy Street, with Vedder introducing it as a song “about a certain kitchen right up the street.” (That would be the kitchen of Mudhoney’s bassist Matt Lukin, whose house Vedder would escape to when he was dealing with a stalker problem in the mid-90s.) It all went off without a hitch; Vaughan even recalled drummer Matt Cameron saying his drums never sounded so good.
Nonetheless, Vedder admitted to Vaughan and Cole that he was a little nervous for the show: He knew that the crowd comprised “some of the greatest music fans on the planet, with very discerning taste.” Perhaps that’s why the band leaned so heavily on rarities and covers for the set, though they didn’t entirely avoid the hits. The Vitalogy classic “Corduroy” was played second, right after “1/2 Full,” and it’s anyone’s guess what the discerning crowd heard when Vedder sang the bridge. Though, officially, the lyric goes “Everything has chains / Absolutely nothing’s changed,” it is often misheard as the paradoxical “Everything has changed / Absolutely nothing’s changed.” On this night, the latter may have actually made more sense. Here were Pearl Jam — global stadium stars, and also local boys who still went shopping for records. If they had never blown up, any combination of them may have still ended up playing to small crowds like this. (Though Cameron Crowe, and then-wife Nancy Wilson of Heart, may not have been in attendance.)
Because the space was entirely cleared out of product, Tutty says it didn’t feel too tight in the room — even with all of the windows blacked out by newspaper so passersby wouldn’t get tipped off. (They were told the store was “remodeling.”) For Vedder, however — used to seeing tens of thousands scattered throughout cavernous arenas — “it felt like more people than we’d ever played for.” They seem to have brought enough gear for a bigger crowd. Tutty remembers seeing it all laid out during soundcheck earlier in the afternoon, and a friend of his who lives in the area was ultimately able to hear the show from her apartment.
Six years later, Foo Fighters played Fingerprints Music, a record store in Long Beach, California. Five years after that, Metallica played the Rasputin Music record store in Berkeley on Record Store Day when they were the ambassadors. Pearl Jam’s in-store no longer seems so singular, but Vaughan credits the band with launching the trend. “Pearl Jam was the first band to make it a cool thing to do,” he told Vedder. Cole went even further, suggesting that Pearl Jam’s in-store — and their insistence that the Live at Easy Street EP be exclusive to independent stores — helped create the momentum for the creation of Record Store Day, first observed in 2008. It gave the shopkeepers “confidence” to persevere, said Vaughan, against the long odds. Those odds have eased up slightly in recent years, with much being made of vinyl’s (relative) resurgence.
It was only a matter of time before Pearl Jam made that kind of gesture. From the start, the band has aggressively championed vinyl — sending yearly 7-inch singles to its fan club members for more than 25 years, and giving songs titles like “Spin the Black Circle” and “Let the Records Play” nearly 20 years apart from each other. (The former is from 1994’s Vitalogy, the latter 2013’s Lightning Bolt.) It’s part of a broader appreciation in Pearl Jam-land for all things Luddite: McCready is known to take Polaroids of the band’s crowds while onstage, and Vedder likes to draft lyrics on his trusty typewriters. The singer spoke lovingly to Vaughan and Cole of the store he grew up going to — Lou’s Records in San Diego — where he would buy new albums by bands like Talking Heads and Split Enz and then skateboard to school after cutting first period. Places like Lou’s, said Vedder, were essential to his ability to discover new music. “Pre-Internet,” he remembered, “that was the campfire, you know?” The exchange went beyond music: Vedder also got his “first” Public Image Ltd T-shirt at Lou’s.
The band members, moreover, have remained frequent faces around Easy Street in the years since the 2005 show. In 2015, Tutty recalls with glee, Vedder was hanging out in the store and pointed out a button on his jacket. The button had been designed by an artist friend of Tutty’s for his wedding, and so depicted Tutty with his then-fiancée. Vedder had acquired one because the same artist had designed some of Pearl Jam’s touring merchandise, so Vedder stuck it on his jacket like he wasn’t the city’s biggest rock star, but still a high schooler talking about the Pretenders with the guy behind the counter at Lou’s.
But, in the very same year that Pearl Jam belatedly took up the mantle of RSD Ambassadors, they also abruptly discontinued their signature fan club program: the yearly 7-inch, which has yielded everything from treasured rarities like “Let Me Sleep” to the band’s highest-charting hit to date, their cover of Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss.” The email came in December with no warning, stating flatly that the program would be discontinued for all memberships purchased as of January 1, 2019. “We hope you have enjoyed these special collectibles over the past 25+ years,” it added.
Speaking with Vaughan and Cole, Vedder acknowledged that as record stores have declined since his school days, the Internet has provided an alternative space for communities of fans to discover, share, and discuss new music. He even came forward as a Billie Eilish fan, letting us know that Pearl Jam don’t only look backwards. But he made clear that the two spaces were not one and the same. The Internet, he said, is more like “an LED campfire…It still gives you light, but I don’t know if you feel the warmth.” With no more annual vinyl singles on the horizon, it remains to be seen whether “Spin the Black Circle” will land as hard whenever Pearl Jam play it next.
Everything has changed, absolutely nothing’s changed.