How Pearl Jam Transformed for the Early Milestone ‘Unplugged’
During their appearance on MTV’s Unplugged, Pearl Jam turned an hour on an unassuming New York City soundstage into an early career milestone which demonstrated their power and flexibility as a live act.
Armed only with acoustic instruments, the band headed out to the borough of Queens for the first and only time on in March of 1992 to the famed Kaufman Astoria Studios. A ton of films from The Wiz to Goodfellas had previously been filmed at the studio, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it’s best known as the home of Sesame Street.
It was a heady moment in time for Pear Jam. The last time they’d been through NYC, they were the first opening act on a four-night run of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ BloodSugarSexMagik tour when debut album Ten was just a three months old and "Alive" was only beginning to see heavy rotation on MTV.
When they headed to Queens, however, Ten had cracked the top 20 on a wild, year-long ride ultimately to No. 2. The band had just returned from their first European tour and was about to begin its first headlining U.S. jaunt. “Alive” was a staple across MTV and radio, and “Even Flow” was nipping at its heels. Both songs had videos filmed in crowded, sweaty Seattle venues, featuring singer Eddie Vedder swinging from the rafters and leaping from a balcony as the other band members rocked hard on stage. It was difficult to imagine what stripping down those tunes to bare bones would sound like, but from the moment Vedder opened his mouth to croon the ballad “Oceans,” the goosebumps were palpable.
The transformation took place in front of the small audience’s eyes. Ed starts off grinning with his hair tucked into a Chicago White Sox cap, and his signature brown corduroy jacket — the later inspiration for Vitalogy’s “Corduroy” — buttoned up. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, along with bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Dave Abbruzzese are largely in shadow.
Cheers erupt on Vedder’s first big high notes in “Oceans” and he manages to keep that hat jammed on his head through the revved up “State of Love and Trust” — a cut from the Singles soundtrack that was then still three months from being released. But when Gossard leans into the opening “Alive” riff, Vedder literally lets his hair down. By the end, he’s a blur of flailing locks belting atop the anything-but-quiet jam.
A power ballad was a natural for the Unplugged format, and Pearl Jam’s “Black” fit the bill perfectly, with Vedder’s baritone soaring, beads of sweat on his brow, eyes closed, Ament and Gossard singing backup, and EV’s emotional tag, “We belong together!” closing it out.
“Jeremy”’s haunting video was still months away, but Unplugged served it up with muscle, despite the lack of electric instruments, with Ament’s 12-string bass particularly shining.
“Even Flow,” showed off McCready’s facility with playing a solo on an acoustic guitar, but in the aired version you can tell the real taping unfolded in a different order, as Vedder appears to have something written on his hand.
Indeed the climactic moment, which aired last but came in the middle of the actual taping, was “Porch.” Vedder throws off his jacket during the rapid-fire intro. Ament climbs the drum riser to play Abbruzese’s cymbals with his bass as Vedder stands atop his stool writing “PRO CHOICE!!! with a marker before leaping back to the floor during the song’s long jam. In case the close up of his arm didn’t make his point, the singer also introduced an entire new section of lyrics: “there’s something on my mind, there’s a choice in our time… want to live, I want to choose.”
After it initially aired, fans passed around VHS tapes and cassettes of the performances for years and it later became a Pearl Jam 101 must-see on YouTube, but the performance wasn’t officially released until it came out on vinyl for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event in November 2019. Despite being a special release, the set rose to No. 4 on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart just in time for Christmas. Not bad for an hour in Queens.