'Why Go Home'? Pearl Jam Answers With Seattle Museum Exhibit, Outreach to City's Homeless

Danny Clinch
Pearl Jam

For a band that’s inexorably linked to Seattle, it’s easy to lose sight of Pearl Jam around the Puget Sound. The band rarely throws its political weight around the city’s hot-button issues, and its members aren’t likely to play gigs here, as Pearl Jam’s last homestand happened in 2013.

That Seattle silence ended this week with an emphasis on “home”: a pair of sold-out “home show” concerts, a major museum exhibit celebrating the band’s 28-year history, and an $11 million initiative to battle homelessness in the city.

Kevin Shuss, the band’s longtime archivist and videographer, led a team to build this week’s "Pearl Jam: Home and Away" exhibit at the MoPOP Museum. At its preview opening this week (Aug. 7), even as he pointed out various pieces of the collection -- a selection of tour-worn shirts, a massive papier-mâché prop from a Seattle gig 25 years ago, Eddie Vedder’s hand-written song journals -- Shuss couldn’t separate the memorabilia from the mission.

When asked why he’s collected so many relics over the band’s full run, Shuss pivots to talking about Pearl Jam’s political and charitable works, big and small. (He reminds Billboard that the guys are quite charitable around Seattle, with examples such as the Vitalogy Foundation and Seattle’s non-profit, all-ages music venue the Vera Project.) Many of those efforts run under the radar by default; when pressed, Shuss hints about band members helping local musicians from the ‘90s “that didn’t get as fortunate” with medical bills and the like.

“Working with people with that ethic, not about publicity but actually about giving back and trying to change and make stuff better?” Shuss says. “I want to be a part of that.”

Shuss’s wide-eyed introduction to the Seattle sound didn’t hurt. He drove from his small hometown in Idaho to the Northwest in 1987 with an interest in art and design, and he almost immediately began screen-printing shirts with his friend Jim Sorenson in the back of a Seattle tattoo shop. Within a year, the duo was making shirts for Sub Pop Records and bands like Alice In Chains (whose drummer happened to be Shuss’s roommate).

Shuss became Alice in Chains’ merch guy, and when that band flew to Europe, he found work with other groups, including Pearl Jam. By then, he’d used his early T-shirt money to buy a “portable” VHS camcorder, making him one of the only Seattle music hangers-on to have a good way to film concerts. (Shuss snuck into a lot of concerts in 1988 and ‘89 by hanging at a venue’s loading dock and asking bands if they would trade tickets for his video work.)

“When I sold merch, I worked with a lot of bands, that, okay, I did one tour,” Shuss says. “I don’t need to go back.” Pearl Jam was different, he says -- and he still recognizes many members of the band’s production and concert crews going back to his 1991 start. Shuss latched on by contributing however he could, from video recording to general roadie duties to even handling tech for keyboards. “I don’t know how to play an instrument,” he says incredulously.

Shuss admitted he’s a “packrat” about archiving Pearl Jam’s stuff. His collecting habit began when he’d run a venue’s merch booth and use empty T-shirt boxes to haul memorabilia out, including posters and broken guitars. By the time he was riding in buses with the band, he would regularly fill “half of his bunk” with collectibles or lay extra posters in protective flats under his mattress. That habit continues to this day, as Shuss has access to Pearl Jam’s formidable Seattle warehouse space.

Unsurprisingly, the collection is flanked by Pearl Jam shirts hung on the walls -- over 100, easily, with many of Shuss’ own designs included in the framed collection. Each of the exhibit’s cases seems to have one or two awards slapped in for comedic effect, with statues from the Grammys, American Music Awards, and MTV VMAs tucked next to other relatively simple relics from concerts and recording sessions.

Fans who want to pore over Eddie Vedder’s lyrics get a few opportunities in the exhibit, thanks to peeks at both his handwritten scrawls and his typed-and-marked drafts (and Vedder’s old, original typewriter gets the display treatment, as well). Other band members flex their artistic chops, as well, including large watercolors by guitarist Mike McCready and a pair of bass guitars that Jeff Ament covered in his unique handwriting, filled to the brim with names of famous NBA athletes.

Some parts of the exhibit set the historical tone for the Pearl Jam unfamiliar. One wall is dedicated to platinum records and tapes from various territories, while a spacious listening booth makes it easy to pick through the band’s massive recorded catalog via a touchscreen interface. Another touchscreen offers fans the chance to tap through setlists, laminates, and other relics from nearly every concert in the band’s history (seriously, Shuss is encyclopedic), while the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame status is memorialized in modest fashion: by a small note congratulating the band for the honor, written by President Barack Obama.

Design drafts and photo-shoot leftovers can be found for pretty much every Pearl Jam album ever made. The coolest of these, arguably, is the giant, all-caps PEARL JAM set saved from the Ten album-cover shoot. Just like on the album cover, it’s bathed in purple light, and it’s easy to pose in front of. Meanwhile, the exhibit’s newest item happens to commemorate an important element of the band's history: Andrew Wood, the late lead singer of early grunge outfit Mother Love Bone, whose members included Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. His likeness, made into a 1,300-pound bronze sculpture, was commissioned by the band’s members, and they saw it for the first time only hours before the public walked in on Tuesday.

One day after that unveiling, the band played the first of two sold-out concerts and gave fans a staggering three-hour, 33-song performance. The politically vocal band kept speeches and proselytizing at a minimum through that lengthy runtime (a fact lead singer winked to by thanking fans for sticking with the “notorious” band for so long).

One exception came near the end of the band’s first set when Vedder gave his bandmates a breather by introducing a classic song. During the Ten recording sessions, Vedder regularly encountered a Vietnam vet named Eddie outside their Seattle studio. He was easily identifiable by a blue tarp and shopping cart, but Vedder said he typically recognized the man because “he always had a glow sticking out of him.” They had a regular exchange: an extra sandwich from Vedder in exchange for Eddie’s stories (when he was lucid enough to tell them). This friendship inspired Vedder to write a song, and after road-testing the song before its release, he came back to Seattle, only to learn Eddie was gone.

“He never got to hear this,” Vedder told the crowd (and admitted this part of the song’s history had never been told). That’s when he offered a single, direct plea to the crowd, to “elevate the empathy for our homeless neighbors,” before revealing which song he was talking about: an emotionally charged rendition of “Even Flow,” complete with a scalding Mike McCready guitar solo at its end.

This moment, followed by a brief Vedder-only version of the Beatles’ “Help!,” was the beating heart in the middle of a visceral, wail- and solo-filled summation of the band’s history thus far. Much like the MoPOP exhibit, Pearl Jam’s Wednesday night “home show” vacillated across the band’s 28-year output, running the gamut between Ten and Lightning Bolt—with a few epic covers in between. Vedder played a solo cover of The White Stripes’ “We're Going to Be Friends” (a band first), while the band used Little Steven’s “I Am A Patriot” and Neil Young’s “Throw Your Hatred Down” to establish the show’s tone: empathy via song.

The concert began with a slow-burning take on “Long Road,” a song that dates back to their sessions with Young in 1995, and the capacity crowd erupted when Vedder cried out, “How I wished for you today.” Between the museum exhibit and the giant concerts, he appears to have gotten his wish this week -- along with his hometown’s attention about homelessness.

“It is a wave,” Vedder said about the issue in one final thank-you speech to the crowd, “and we are the water.”


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