Eddie Vedder once said that drummer Jack Irons saved Pearl Jam from wilting under the pressure of grunge-era superstardom, and you could also make a strong case that the band might not have ever existed if not for Irons’ role in introducing the then-unknown Vedder to his eventual Seattle bandmates back in the fall of 1990.
Beyond that, Irons’ nearly four-year tenure in the band from 1994-1998 found him making a vital impact on some of its most beloved music. But his on-stage work with Pearl Jam has never been documented anywhere near the way it has been from 2000 onwards, when the band began releasing live recordings of nearly every concert it played. That has always been a shame, because Irons brought a loose, earthy groove to Pearl Jam’s sound that often contrasted noticeably with the more rigid and powerful tendencies of his predecessor, Dave Abbruzzese, and his eventual successor, former Soundgarden skinsman Matt Cameron.
Thankfully, the Irons-era Pearl Jam live showcase fans have long craved has finally arrived for Record Store Day 2023 with Give Way, an edited version sporting 17 of the 25 songs from the band’s legendary March 5, 1998, concert at Melbourne Park in Australia. The performance was broadcast live on radio and the internet by Australian station Triple J and widely bootlegged, and was later planned to be included as a free promotion to fans who purchased the Pearl Jam documentary Single Video Theory at Best Buy upon its early August 1998 release.
At the last minute, it turned out that the band and its label, Epic Records, hadn’t actually signed off on the plan, prompting the destruction of nearly all of the 50,000 CD copies that had already been pressed (one is currently selling for $700 on Discogs). More than simply correcting that snafu 25 years later, Give Way is a crucial document of Pearl Jam five shows into its first tour in a year-and-a-half and just beginning to incorporate material from its then month-old new album Yield into its set lists. Irons was dealing with a life-changing mental health crisis at the time (more on that later), but you’d really never know it based on the strength of his playing here.
There’s great joy in listening to Irons perform the songs on which he drummed on Yield and its 1996 predecessor, the wildly varied but somewhat polarizing No Code. The version of “Brain of J” is arguably the best the band ever put to tape, its four-to-the-floor beat driving Mike McCready and Stone Gossard’s propulsive descending guitar riffs like a locomotive billowing exhaust. Likewise “Do the Evolution,” a full-throated Vedder growl of an indictment on the selfishness of modern humanity paired with one of Gossard’s most memorable six-string sequences (it’s also one of the few Pearl Jam songs on which he handles the lead guitar solo).
Irons further shines on the alternately serene and crunchy Yield favorites “Faithfull” and “Given To Fly,” and No Code’s “In My Tree,” the latter a tour de force of tom-heavy, tribal-flavored drum beats despite Vedder fumbling the lyrics. There’s a reason the latter song disappeared from Pearl Jam’s live repertoire for five years after this tour and even then only reappeared in a new arrangement — Irons’ musical essence is so baked into it that no other drummer could reasonably be expected to really do it justice.
At the time, some fans grumbled that Irons’ style didn’t quite fit with live performances of older Pearl Jam material on which he didn’t originally participate, but if anything, his restraint in accelerating the tempos results here in some excellent renditions. “State of Love and Trust” almost sounds like it’s being played in half-time although it’s only slightly slower than its studio version, while “Immortality” transcends some disjointed moments to build to an incendiary, Irons-powered climax.
Elsewhere, Give Way amply demonstrates Vedder’s command of and innate ability to bond with an audience, thanks to numerous Australia-specific references and even a short tease of the iconic riff from Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning.” Before “Hail, Hail,” Vedder salutes 7 ft 2 in. Australian basketball player Luc Longley, at that point a two-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, by changing the lyrics to “are we going to the same place, even though I’m small,” and a nod to Australian native sons INXS is also woven into “In My Tree.”
As for the excluded songs, it’s not clear why they were chosen for removal but they’re mostly more downtempo items such as “Off He Goes,” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” and “Indifference.” Vedder tacked a key portion of opening act Shudder To Think’s “Pebbles” into “Daughter,” and even rattled off a 40-second snippet of the then-ultra-rarity “Crazy Mary,” but both are now sadly absent.
What nobody could have known on that cool autumn night in eastern Australia is that Irons would play his final show with Pearl Jam just 15 days later. As the drummer revealed in detail for the first time in the book Pearl Jam 20, he’d struggled for years with a bipolar condition and had decided to stop taking medications prior the tour, but in doing so, his “nervous system went haywire. I stopped sleeping. I was just so overwhelmed that I had to go out and play every night. It was like a panic attack that wouldn’t come down.”
Afterward, Irons made the difficult decision that he could no longer continue in the band, in the service of repairing his own mental health. Cameron filled in on a North American tour later that summer and has been Pearl Jam’s drummer ever since (ironically, some of his very first live performances with the band are chronicled on a separate 1998 release, Live on Two Legs).
But like all great stories, this one has a happy ending. Irons’ life stabilized, and he’s released a host of interesting solo music over the past 15-plus years. What’s more, he’s remained on good terms with his former bandmates, guested at several Pearl Jam and Vedder shows, and become a friend and mentor to Pearl Jam touring member Josh Klinghoffer, to whom he sold the kit on which he recorded No Code back in the ‘90s.
Indeed, Pearl Jam has endured as one of the most revered rock bands of all time in the 25 years since Irons’ departure. But its music was rarely as soul-stirring, eclectic, and deeply felt as is heard on Give Way, and for that, Irons deserves one heck of a high five.