At some point, probably around the middle of 1999, possibly on a Tuesday afternoon, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam crossed on the career escalator (it’s like a career ladder, only faster and requiring less physical exertion), Kiedis and co on one side, ascending to the stadiums in the stratosphere, Vedder’s men heading down towards the garages and the gutter on the other.
At the time, Pearl Jam were partway through a run of aesthetically sound but increasingly labored studio albums, which started with 1994’s ‘Vitalogy‘ and reached a nadir with 2000’s ‘Binaural‘, that would chip away at their commercial cachet like a sculptor fashioning a thimble from a block of marble.
The Chili Peppers had just released ‘Californication‘, and album that saw them forgo the funk metal of their your in favor of fully-crafted songs and agreeable anthems that wouldn’t – and, in fact didn’t – sound out of place coming from the stereos of estate agent and middle managers. It’s tempting to think that neither band looked back at the other.
Five years on and both bands have almost completed their respective journeys. Pearl Jam, having fulfilled the recording contract they signed with Sony at the start of the Seattle grunge rush in 1991, are now an independent concern able to release album like ‘Benaroya Hall‘, an almost acoustic, absolutely altruistic (part of the proceeds go to Youth Care, an American charity catering for homeless kids and runaways) live set recorded in a church hall in front of a handful of people, most of whom sing along with almost every word.
The Chili Peppers, meanwhile, are The Biggest Rock Band In The World and thus contractually obliged to release an album like ‘Live In Hyde Park‘, an almost spontaneous, absolutely self-serving (all of the proceeds go to swelling their already clinically obese bank accounts) live album recorded in Hyde Park in front of hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom are only there because Robbie Williams wasn’t touring this summer.
Who do you think is happier? Well, judging by the performance captured here, it’s the ones laughing all the way to the offshore bank. While it would seem that Eddie Vedder has finally transformed into his hero Neil Young (ie a cranky curmudgeon) the Chili Peppers sound positively perky, Flea cracking wise about our “little island in the North Atlantic” and Anthony getting dewy-eyed about bumping into support act James Brown.
Both bands concentrate on their mid-to-late-period material while indulging themselves with a couple of cover version. Pearl Jam opt for Dylan and Cash while the Chili cock about with Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love‘, ‘Looking Glass‘, ‘Brandy‘ and, in an encore segment frighteningly ‘Drum Homage Medley‘, old Led Zep, U2 and Queen paradiddle (no, really). As such, it’s something of a relief when they finally unleash ‘Under The Bridge‘ and everybody gets to go home humming a tune they recognize.
So what have we learned? In truth, nothing that we didn’t already know.
‘Benaroya Hall‘ is roughly the 1,000th live album Pearl Jam have released this century since they started officially bootlegging entire tours, although its charitable bent proves their hearts are in the right place even if their refusal to play any hits suggests their heads might be up their arsis.
The Chilis’ album, meanwhile, is a sometimes dazzling document of a band at the peak of their powers, but exhibits all the charm and compassion of businessmen who made their regular fans stand 100 yards away from the Hyde Park stage so that they could charge rich arriviste more cash to swan around in a special Gold Circle. Still, you pays your money, and you makes your choice.