The road to Pearl Jam’s legendary performance on MTV Unplugged was, like most things happening to Pearl Jam in the early 1990s, swift and largely out of their control. A band well known for their high energy and death-defying live shows wasn’t necessarily thought to be well suited for going acoustic, but the classic rock inspired balladry of ‘Alive’ and ‘Black’ were just waiting to be stripped down in all their glory.
Within the band’s narrative, much is made of the band’s February 19th show at the Albani Bar of Music in Switzerland. The band arrived at the venue only to discover that it was a music cafe that more closely resembled an elevator shaft. “The stage was only about as big as our drum riser,” Jeff Ament recalls in the documentary Pearl Jam 20. So the band elected to do something different: they went acoustic. As is referenced in the documentary, this is commonly cited as the impetus for the band’s invitation to play Unplugged.
But that wasn’t the first time that the band had played acoustically. Just about a week earlier, Eddie Vedder and the boys made a promotional appearance at Tower Records in Paris, France, where the band first previewed their mellower side. The scope and power of Tower Records in the ’90s is not to be underestimated: scores of young music fans flocked to retail locations around the world to pick up the latest in pop, hip-hop, and especially alternative rock. As it so happened, though, this wasn’t even the first time that Pearl Jam had played acoustic at Tower Records.
No, that distinction belongs to the band’s November 9th appearance at the Rockville, Maryland Tower Records, in 1991. The group were playing at the Bender Arena at American University in Washington D.C. that night and decided to stop by the suburbs to sign a few copies of Ten and play a few acoustic shows. “We’ve never done anything like this before,” Vedder says at the top of the clip. While the band would later bust out some more notable acoustic moments, this is the first verifiable time that the band had performed in this style.
Drummer Dave Abbruzzese plays an extremely stripped down kit, with only a snare, bass drum, and two cymbals at his disposal. Jeff Ament has yet to embrace the upright, so he’s rocking an electric-acoustic bass. Vedder crouches down for the first song ‘Wash’, not looking terribly comfortable being as vulnerable as he is.
He seems to get more relaxed as the band kicks into ‘Black’, and the low powered microphone Vedder uses soon gets relegated as he and the band begin calling out the song’s gut-punch ending. The group even manages to fit in a Fugazi cover before barreling into the perennial set closer, ‘Porch’. Without any scaffolding to scale, Vedder resigns himself to simply climbing on top of Abbruzzese’s bass drum. Not quite a life-threatening climb, but that’s probably appropriate considering the setting.
Check out the acoustic performance down below.