Eddie Vedder woke up on April 29, 2016, to a surprise: news that a banner emblazoned with the numeral 10 would be lowered from the Wells Fargo Center rafters that night, celebrating the number of arena shows Pearl Jam had sold out in South Philadelphia.
“I saw that number, and it was like, ‘I think we gotta do it,’ ” the singer said with a smile that evening, after the band had finished playing its mega-selling 1991 debut album Ten from start-to-finish for only the second time in its career.
That show gave Pearl Jam the opportunity to celebrate a long history in Philadelphia, dating back to tiny J.C. Dobbs on South Street in 1991 to the final four shows at the Spectrum in South Philly in 2009 to the first Made in America festival in 2012.
Now, the band is using the 2016 Ten show as a focal point in its political initiative PJ Votes 2020, which encourages fans to vote by mail in swing states expected to determine the winner of the presidential election, with a focus on Pennsylvania.
On Thursday — the 30th anniversary of the band’s first performance ever — Pearl Jam will air a video stream of the 32-song, three-hour-plus show on nugs.TV, the live-music platform run by Elkins Park-raised partners Brad Serling and Jon Michael Richter.
The video, filmed with 11 HD cameras and mixed by Pearl Jam producer Josh Evans, will be available for $14.99 and can be watched anytime between 8 p.m. Thursday and midnight on Saturday.
The Ten show, which Serling says he hopes will reach an audience of over 100,000, includes covers of Pink Floyd, Wayne Cochran, the Dead Boys, Neil Young, and the Who. It’s only the second concert Pearl Jam has ever allowed to be video streamed.
Its release calls attention to PJ Votes, the voter mobilization drive that urges fans to join in a Take Three Pledge to vote by mail and recruit three friends to do the same. Fans can sign up by texting PJ Votes to 52886 and find info at pearljam.com/vote.
During the Ten show, Vedder looks up at the 10 banner — which local Live Nation chief Geoff Gordon commissioned Native Colors Flag Co. in Haddonfield to make — and begins waxing sentimental. “There’s something about Philadelphia,” he says. “It seems tough, and intense. I get the City of Brotherly Love. But I also know brothers beat the [stuffing] out of each other! So to see all these intense people … release themselves and open up and celebrate and seem to love each other, it’s really powerful.”
He also sees the number on a Bruce Springsteen banner — 56 — and does an impression of the Boss: “Hey Ed, I hear you’ve got a little banner up there. You’ve got some catchin' up to do. Call me in 20 years.”
No ‘Gigaton,’ but tons of memories
Were it not for the pandemic, Pearl Jam would be adding to their South Philly total as they toured behind their album Gigaton, which came out in March just as COVID-19 was shutting the concert industry down.
This month, the band would have been in Philadelphia playing multiple Wells Fargo dates, while also traveling to other hotly contested battleground states.
“We had a swing-state section intentionally built into our tour schedule,” says Stone Gossard, the band’s rhythm guitarist, who spoke from Seattle last weekend in a Zoom interview with his lead-guitarist bandmate Mike McCready.
“The idea was to get people registered and highlight issues that would help our fans participate in the election.”
In the Zoom call, they reminisced about three decades of good times with Philadelphia-area fans.
“I remember playing Dobbs, and it was the strangest stage I’ve ever been on,” says McCready. An oversize column on one side of the stage made it difficult to see an entire band at the defunct South Street club. “I’ll never forget that.”
The October 2009 Spectrum shows stand out for their sheer variety, McCready says. “In four nights, we tried to play every song we’ve ever written.”
Vedder struck a Rocky Balboa pose with boxing gloves, and gave Phillies-Yankees World Series updates. (The good guys lost.) On Halloween, the band encored dressed as Devo for “Whip It.”
Their Made In America show helped put the festival on the map in 2012. The group brought L.A. punk band pals X along, “and just the fact that Drake played right before us was crazy,” says McCready. “My wife was very excited. And I was too.”
“What was really inspiring about Made In America was playing with Jay-Z on stage and trying to figure out ’99 Problems," with its tricky time signatures, he recalls.
Gossard says the special relationship between the Pearl Jam and Philadelphia is real.
"I think there really is a tangible difference in the level of engagement. I mean, since we started playing Philadelphia and over into New Jersey, it’s … insane. Things are generally sort of twice as big there.
“Some of it has to do with the longevity, I think,” Gossard says. “There’s a consistency with talking to fans, and then having them turn their kids on to the music. It’s magical, and I don’t want to know too much about it. I just want to honor it. It feels real.”
PJ Votes an ‘authentic commitment’
Pearl Jam is well aware that they have fans who are both Republicans and Democrats. PJ Votes encourages voter participation on a nonpartisan basis, even as band members are outspoken in their partisanship.
The band released the song “Get It Back” on a Bandcamp compilation this month called Good Music To Avert The Collapse of American Democracy. “We’ve just seen such incompetence and tragedy and manipulation and anger and fear and lies for the last four years that we’re tired of it,” said McCready. “And I think the American people are too. We need to unite as humans, and voting is part of that process.”
In a statement, Vedder said: “We believe America is at its best when every voice is heard. This is the most important election in our nation’s history. Our democracy is at risk. Your vote is your voice, and it’s time to use it.”
The band has been committed to civic engagement since the beginning of the grunge era. Their first voter-registration initiatives date back to 1992.
Whitney Williams, who ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Montana this year, started teaming with Pearl Jam on voter registration in 2018.
“These guys are just authentically committed to the things they’re doing,” Williams said, speaking from Montana. Gossard and McCready have been surprise-calling Take Three pledge takers in Arizona and Pennsylvania to generate electoral enthusiasm.
Among the groups PJ Votes is partnering with in Pennsylvania is Make the Road Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that works “in Black and brown communities to achieve social and economic justice,” says Maegan Llerena, the group’s executive director.
“I knew that Pearl Jam did activism work, but I didn’t know that they actually engaged with organizations directly, which is pretty amazing to me,” she said, on the phone from Allentown.
“A lot of folks talk about the work that needs to be done, or tell folks they need to go vote, but don’t actually put any effort behind what they’re saying,” she says. “So to know that they do that, it’s pretty awesome. They approached us and wanted to help us work to get out the vote. I was genuinely surprised and impressed by that.”