by Jonathan Cohen
Pearl Jam fans have spent the past 30+ years expecting the unexpected from the Seattle group, but there’s one thing that’s nearly never been in doubt: which members of the band would take the stage that night.
Indeed, Pearl Jam has only played a single show without one of its core five members — September 23, 2002 at the House of Blues in Chicago, when guitarist Stone Gossard was absent due to a prior commitment with Conservation International. It’s a remarkable streak that came to an end on May 12 in Oakland, CA, when drummer Matt Cameron tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to miss the gig.
Enter touring member Josh Klinghoffer, whose Pearl Jam fandom runs so deep that he owns the kit former drummer Jack Irons used in the band in the mid-1990s, and Richard Stuverud, a longtime collaborator of Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament who was once in consideration to fill the PJ drum seat. On 24 hours’ notice, they divided and conquered a set list and were ready for a Pearl Jam first: a show without Matt Cameron.
“Matt Cameron is a true artist and he’s a force of nature. However, even his superhero status could not prevent him from testing positive,” Eddie Vedder joked two songs into the set, which opened strong with a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” From there, we get to hear Klinghoffer and Stuverud put their own unique stamp on the Pearl Jam catalog, with some fascinating results.
Stuverud played “Even Flow” much more slowly than Cameron, its tempo in line with the 1992-era live versions with then-new drummer Dave Abbruzzese. On the other hand, “Jeremy” is almost too slow, sounding like a different song entirely. Klinghoffer gives “Why Go” a loose feel that sounds like really old Pearl Jam — a deviation from Cameron’s ultra-precise, ultra-powerful attack. With Klinghoffer on drums, “Corduroy” has steady propulsion with just the right bit of swing.
Things only got more interesting the next night at the same venue, with Klinghoffer pulling off “Once” very nicely and infusing the punky rarity “Brain of J” with the reckless abandon so crucial to its studio version from 1998’s “Yield.” Stuverud was excellent on drums on “W.M.A.,” which was played for the first time in six years as a full song and not just as a tag at the end of another. “Dissident” sounded great, too, in its new lower key, despite a couple flubbed transitions, while Klinghoffer deftly navigated the measured tension and release of the classic “Immortality” and didn’t hurry “Rearviewmirror.”
In what surely must have been a dream come true, Mill Valley high school student Kai Neukermans played drums on “Mind Your Manners,” after having been brought to Vedder’s attention by his similarly aged daughter Olivia. The song’s furious pace was no trouble at all for the young musician, who plays in a band called The Alive.
When you’re down a drummer, why not dust off a rarity that doesn’t have drums on it? Enter “Bee Girl,” only the ninth performance of the non-album cut since 2014.
These first two Oakland shows already would have gone down in Pearl Jam lore for their lack of Cameron and for the band’s innovative solution to the problem, but the May 16 performance in Fresno, CA, offered an even bigger surprise. For just the second time since he left the band in 1991, original drummer Dave Krusen joined Pearl Jam on stage — the only other being when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the group in 2017 and played a solitary song with them.
“That first record seems to be a record that affected so many people,” Vedder says of Ten. “It’s such a nice thing. Our friend that was playing drums at that time, the amount of shows he got to play with us was fairly limited. This week, we’ll get to make up for that.”
Hearing an astonishing nine songs from Ten, all played by the man whose parts are immortalized on the album, is a revelation. Krusen either practiced a lot in a short period of time or possesses incredible muscle memory — maybe both. His command of the material is truly impressive after such a long time away from it, both on uncommon gems like a slow-burning take on “Garden” or familiar early ‘90s favorites like “State of Love and Trust,” which has a delightful garage-y flair here.
As easy as it could have been for Krusen to steal the show in Fresno, Klinghoffer isn’t to be upstaged on a lead vocal duet with Vedder on Prince’s “Purple Rain,” performed here for the first time ever by Pearl Jam (Vedder and Klinghoffer previously tried the song with The Earthlings a few months back). Momentarily taking the spotlight off his drumstick-wielding mates, guitarist Mike McCready goes to town on a solo cover of Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption,” while guitarist Stone Gossard takes a rare mic turn on the outtake “Don’t Gimme No Lip,” only its 14th time ever played live.
In addition, Stuverud’s presence is felt on “Quick Escape,” one of the heaviest new songs from Pearl Jam’s latest release, 2020’s Gigaton, and he has the bash-and-pop flavor of Keith Moon on the penultimate song of the evening, The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
“Thanks for this tonight. Thank you. I won’t forget this one,” Vedder said after the show-closing “Yellow Ledbetter.”
Sadly, Pearl Jam had another bout of bad luck post-Fresno, when Ament himself tested positive for COVID. The final two shows were canceled, leaving the three without Cameron as true outliers in the Pearl Jam live catalog. As Vedder said at Oakland night one, drummers are like engines, and for these unusual shows, it was a treat to experience how these different engines powered Pearl Jam’s music.
Jonathan Cohen is a veteran journalist and talent booker known for his work at Billboard, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Variety and Spin. He is also the author of the 2011 New York Times-bestselling authorized biography of Pearl Jam, “Pearl Jam 20.”