19 Candles

by Jessica Letkemann on October 22, 2005

(Originally titled “15 Candles” in 2005, all references below have been updated)

It was nineteen years ago to the day, that half of Mother Love Bone, the guitarist from Shadow, a local drummer, and some random singer from San Diego convened on a stage for the very first time. They’d only known each other for days, and had been holed up together making up song after song. Now it was time to audition this singer – this “Eddie” guy – live. So at the last minute, they got themselves onto a bill at the Off Ramp. Someone had the foresight to videotape, and fans have been watching this show for well over a decade.

This little place called the Off Ramp. It was about 200 people… and actually the size of this stage was actually the size of that place. It was probably bigger than I deserved a place to be playing.”
Eddie Vedder, Las Vegas, 10/22/00

It was a cold Monday night, after a cloudy Seattle day that barely made it into the 40s. The Off Ramp was a long, low, non-descript box of a building stuck just a little too close to Interstate 5 (hence the club’s name) and was unmarked except for a lurid neon sign of two nude women and the words “live entertainment.” A gay bar on the weekends, the place had only been offering weeknight bands for three months when this new group showed up to play. Inside the furniture wasn’t even fit for the Salvation Army, and the floors were nothing but nailed-down plywood.

But this club was already an up-and-comer. The owner, Lee Rae, had just sprung for a 6000-watt sound system and newly signed Alice In Chains had already played there, as had Mo’lasses (with a the future member of Stone’s side band Brad) on a bill with Jangletown (Mike McCready’s old Shadow bandmates). So it was that 25-year-old Eddie Vedder – in a weird, tall hat with his hair tucked haphazardly into it, baggy shorts over tie-dyed long johns, and a blue jacket one size too small over a button-down shirt and a t-shirt (layers … remember the 90s?) – came on stage, standing still for the one song soundcheck of “Even Flow.” He stands back, moving farther back as the song progresses so that the light is on the other guys. There’s 24-year-old Stone Gossard, his long hair in a ponytail with a baseball cap on top (nice scrunchie), with his Gibson. Jeff Ament, 28, is stage right in a white T, and, of course, a hat. He goes into the empty crowd space to check out his new band’s sound. “Even Flow” is much slower than any later version of it, but it’s all there. Mike, 24-years-old, takes the solo, Ed’s voice is in full, deep, effect. They called themselves “Mookie Blaylock”, but this is Pearl Jam being born, almost fully formed. The song ends with a D-minor chord in unison.

Five people clap.

When the show actually starts with “Release,” the crowd is much bigger. Somewhere in that dark, oblong box is Mother Love Bone manager Kelly Curtis, newly signed on to Stone and Jeff’s new thing. Soundgarden manager Susan Silver is in the house too. 200 other Seattle music fans turned out that night, many who have still yet to figure out that was Pearl Jam’s first show they saw, but from the whistling, and cheering, and applause, it’s clear that they liked what they heard. With his little jacket gone, hugging himself and his eyes clamped shut, Ed’s voice reaches all the way to the bottom of its register, confounding the soundman. The lyrics aren’t all there yet, but when he gets to the soaring chorus, “Release meeeeeeee!,” someone in the crowd says something like, “Wow, where’d they find this guy?!”

“(That first gig) was rough, but it was totally beautiful that we could do something that we worked so hard for and had so much fun with. It’s a great story to tell because it makes me feel really good. It was really intense. It was really introverted because everything was so new and we wanted to make sure we were playing our parts right. I think Eddie was kind of freaked out because he was singing in front of these guys that had been in this big Seattle band. Everyone was really nervous even though it wasn’t a big show. It was rough, but it felt so good to get up and play.”
Jeff Ament, Pollstar, Sept 23, 1991

“Alone” hits next. Like most of the songs that night, it’s much slower than fans would come to know it and the verses are bitten off at the end and not quite all there to the point that most of what Ed sings is unintelligible. This is when he starts moving forward, towards front and center on this tiny stage that barely fit the five guys and their gear. His hat comes off and there’s his long hair, still shaved short on the sides from his Bad Radio skater cut. And then McCready takes his solo out front on his Strat, limp hair dangling in his face. He’s in another world. Ever been to a Pearl Jam show? You’ve seen Mike lose himself in his fretboard like this. At song ends, a crowd member entreats him, “Don’t stop!”

When Stone plays that signature first riff in “Alive,” everything really comes together. Stone’s working his neck and shoulders into the riff. Eddie looks poignantly upwards as he starts to sing. Jeff stalks around the stage. Along the way, Ed starts headbanging. Some shirtless dude in the crowd starts pogoing; he looks suspiciously like Larry Steiner, the shirtless, joke-rocking scenester dude who cameos in the “Alive” video. With the only hesitation being Ed’s clipped “hey!”s instead of “heeeey” at the chorus, “Alive” is delivered whole.

“Everyone was nervous, wanting to see the phoenix rise. There was such an intense connection among all of them…. The Off Ramp show was amazing and people wanted to see Stone and Jeff win.”Soundgarden manager Susan Silver, Spin, 2001.

Mookie Blaylock rocks into “Once,” but it’s not quite the song that ends up on Ten. The verses are more syncopated, a little funkier. The lights come up more and now Ed’s button-down shirt comes off and he’s in a white T-shirt, peeling off the layers as the show gets sweatier, just like he’s done at every PJ show since. The shirtless possibly Larry Steiner guy is going nuts, strutting around to the beat.

Before “Even Flow” gets underway, the only surviving bit of banter from the evening occurs. The videotaper has been snipping out the time between songs, but this fragment of Stone patting Eddie encouragingly on the back, and Eddie asking him, “did you miss these guys?” remains. Miss who? The Seattle crowd? His longtime bandmate Jeff? Our guess is both. “Even Flow” is a little faster than the soundcheck, but still slower than it’s commonly played. Ed’s almost going into his first back-to-back lean with Jeff, flipping his hair around wildly, getting comfortable on this stage. In his exuberance, he comes into one of the choruses early. Mike’s solo is quite restrained by today’s standards. But these guys are excited and it shows. Ed starts hitting the cymbals with his hand at the outro. He later told Faces magazine, the show for him, was “pretty religious.”

“Black” comes in right in the middle. Ed’s singing full on, in that familiar foghorn baritone that has been copied from Scott Weiland to Scott Stapp and beyond. He’s even working in vibrato here, but the lyrics are not complete, and he’s a bit tentative. “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star” at this point was sung as “I know one day you’ll be a star, I know you’ll be a star” But the “do do do do do do do’s” are firmly in place.

“Breath,” is slower, sung haltingly, and the band isn’t turned up loud enough; but as the choruses take off, Jeff and Stone meet up to trade riffs and Ed goes into his very first (of many many many) leans with Mike, singing the whole middle-8 back to back with McCready in a frenzy of flailing hair. Eddie ducks behind Jeff, next to Dave Krusen’s kit, to highlight Mike’s solo, beginning a long tradition he’s continued to this day.

Curiously, “Girl,” which is the first and only known live performance of this never released song, seems to be the most fully-realized song of the set, perhaps due to the lyric sheet Ed seems to be peeping at throughout. With a smattering of applause, Stone thanks everyone for coming out to see them. And then it’s over, forty-five minutes, one tiny club, and a pack of brand-new songs later.

The Off Ramp isn’t there anymore – at least not as the Off Ramp. It was renamed Graceland a few years back, and now lives on as El Corazon, still featuring live music. And Mookie Blaylock, isn’t Mookie Blaylock of course, they renamed themselves “Pearl Jam”. And now, that musical bond they forged in the cold, rainy October of 1990 has lasted nineteen years and counting. We can’t thank you enough.

October 22 Live Lineage:

Jessica Letkemann ( Twitter: @Letkemann )
TFT co-editor Jessica Letkemann is a New York based digital music journalist & editor. She's currently VP & Editor-In-Chief of Digital at Fuse Media (Fuse.tv) and was previously managing editor of Billboard.com. She has also been on staff at Spin and Premiere magazines. Her first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 2, 1992.

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