Best of No Code, Live: Reviewing the Top Live Performances of Each Song
While the music of August 27, 1991’s Ten quickly destined to fuel a musical explosion of atomic proportions, Pearl Jam’s fourth album from five years later (to the day) would carve out a radically different path. From the first exotic percussive sound of lead single Who You Are, No Code platformed the band’s fanbase litmus-testing (ala Vitalogy’s Bugs and Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me) to unavoidable levels. This was a new era of Pearl Jam, and not everyone was gonna stay along for the ride.
It is for this reason that one may presume the album’s 25th anniversary is the lesser to Ten’s 30th. While commercially-speaking that is the case, the strength of the songs that make up No Code have substantially grown their popular acclaim over time, with Present Tense even topping the iTunes charts in 2020 after a prominent appearance in ESPN’s The Last Dance. And while some of the fans may not have understood this record then, their all-timer-level appreciation has come as they’ve aged…unless, of course, their name is John Farrar.
Welcome to liveon4legs.com, and today – one of the Super Bowls of PJ content-creation! It’s my honor to contribute to it by breaking down the best versions of each No Code song in the live setting, where a lot of that “aging like fine wine” has taken place these last 25 years.
Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, NE – 10/9/2014
On the record, Sometimes is a quiet and reflective primer for Hail, Hail to hit the hardest it can. Here, the song serves well as a piece of the more extended slow-burns that defined the Lightning Bolt era shows – following a Pendulum opener and leading into Nothingman. The performance itself is what puts this version on the list, from a tight opening to a dynamic build in intensity at the end that defines any good version.
The Late Show with David Letterman, New York, NY – 9/20/1996
Some of these songs took years to reach their best performance. This one simply isn’t one of them. The most perfect balance of indicative and unique songwriting for the band was a standout from the get-go, and early performances are a big part of that. In this case, it’s the most prominent one (could anyone ever forget Stone’s outfit?) alongside honorable mentions Randall’s Island 9/28/1996 and Oakland 11/14/1997.
Who You Are
iWireless Center, Moline, IL – 10/17/2014
Things just come full circle here. The aforementioned (no pun intended) lead single that turned some fans away from No Code found itself as the peak moment of fan excitement in the biggest live display of love for the album to date. The crowd clapping, iconic Ed introduction, and premature Jeff bass brings it all together beautifully, and the celebratory nature of its performance make it impossible to exclude here, especially on such an occasion. Lisbon 11/25/1996 is a solid honorable mention, as its single moment in the opening slot conjured this same atmosphere, which Who You Are ends up shining in the most.
In My Tree
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY – 7/8/2003
One of the more iconic songs of the album both in the studio, and how it has developed onstage (check out LO4L’s Patreon Exclusive Evolution Episode for more!), and this big MSG stage showing of 2003’s slow version encapsulates it all – creating a moment that could be ranked at the very top of perhaps their single most moment-filled show. Honorable mentions include Chicago 8/24/2009 (Matt Cameron fully accesses his inner Jack Irons), and old meeting new with Mr. Irons’ guest appearance at Santa Barbara 10/28/2003.
Wrigley Field, Chicago, IL – 8/20/2018
In a live context, Smile is No Code’s crowd-pleaser. No matter where it lies in the set, Stone and Jeff’s switching of instruments and the sound of Ed’s harmonica is quick to sneak up on crowds as a highlight of the night. I carry a massive bias, but it is for this reason that the ballpark shows are quite simply where it’s at when it comes to this one in particular – that party setting being the superior blend with the song’s musical features. Outside of that, however, Alpine Valley 6/27/1998 is an earlier-era highlight, with the homestate connection to The Frogs – whose lead singer previously left Ed a note that inspired the song’s lyrics.
Off He Goes
Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA – 10/22/2003
This choice kind of speaks sufficiently for itself. Take one of the band’s best acoustic-forward songs, put it in the most acoustic-forward setting in their live history, and it’s easy to imagine the magic ingrained in the results. Ed’s voice is in the perfect space for it to do what it needs in this version, and Mike McCready’s guitar flourishes in ear-pleasing ways throughout. Here, honorable mentions touch on different aspects of Off He Goes. For a more electric (and FAR more emotional) feel, there is simply no better choice than Seattle 11/6/2000. For an earlier look at the band’s use of the song, Inglewood 7/13/1998 is a cut that eliminates any surprise towards the band’s inclusion of it on Live on Two Legs.
Soldier Field, Chicago, IL – 7/11/95
Perhaps take this with a grain of salt as it is just me speaking as someone who was not even a child in the 90s, but this song is easily the #1 living time-capsule that ties the band back to when they were writing these songs 25 years ago. It just didn’t feel right to even venture past 2000 when making a choice here, and the spirit of such a time period directly calls for the Soldier Field show. Jack Irons is in full swing, Ed’s angst boils into the peak of its crackling – a surprising amount of energy for only the band’s third try on the then non-album track. Matt Cameron’s evergreen power does add something extra to the song’s dramatic turns, however, making Pinkpop 2000 an easy honorable mention.
Deutschlandhalle, Berlin, DE – 11/3/1996
While a lot of these choices thus far have momentous stories and build-up behind them, this one might seem like a relatively random choice. The spontaneous perfection in this performance, however, overcomes all of that. Ed forgetting to begin singing gives the song some extra breathing room that shows off its dynamics – and by the time he comes in, he crushes it, a perfect match for Mike McCready’s signature noise exploration on the song. If this (relatively) obscure pick was the main feature here, there’s no doubt that the honorable mention has to be the highlighting Austin City Limits 10/3/09 performance, in which Ben Harper joins the guys in stellar fashion.
Pepsi Center, Denver, CO – 10/22/2014
When it comes to choosing the best Lukin, it really requires some elaboration as to what you’re going for. There isn’t a single best Lukin, so much as there are many different ones. To me, this list is asking for an ultimate take on every song – and there is zero question that this single take on it captures it all more than anything else. Ed’s slow improv that invokes the idea of MSG’s Lukin II sets up a climactic transition into a clean traditional version, making for a cool moment in the band’s 22nd anniversary celebration.
The Late Show with David Letterman, New York, NY 5/4/06
No Code has grown to encompass several favorites, but if you asked most fans, Present Tense is the album’s magnum opus. Part of the way in which this truth has been played out has been the vast number of memorable live versions that could potentially be on this list. If I had to rank the best versions that went unmentioned here, several of them would be versions of Present Tense.
Again, with the philosophy of trying to encapsulate everything that makes the song great live, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the #1 choice. In 2006, that’s ten years following the then-polarizing album’s release, a crowd of lucky Ten Club members immediately took every one of the illustrious lyrics for themselves – a statement of the album’s growth among fans on a nationally-televised stage.
Honorable mentions are where it gets very difficult here, and I’ve chosen Charlotte 8/4/2000 as the perfect complement to the Letterman version. The second show after Roskilde still shows the band in a hesitant place emotionally, and openly displays the importance of the song’s lyrics to the members themselves. As shown above, it would take six years for that to transfer to the fans just as deeply.
MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas, NV – 10/22/2000
Pearl Jam’s tenth anniversary show has many moments that can easily be recalled as memorable. What you may not remember however, is how well Stone nailed Mankind that night. The rule with the song is that you’ll typically get a hesitant version, but at random times it ends up going perfectly – there are several examples, but this is one of the only times it happened at a show that was so important. An honorable mention falls into that pattern with Rome 6/26/2018, one of the most beloved shows on the band’s most recent tour that also happened to have a killer version of the Stone-led jam.
New England Dodge Music Center, Hartford, CT – 5/13/2006
This one may not have the onstage lore of an In My Tree or Present Tense, but the beauty of rare tracks like I’m Open is that every version can be analyzed in a very short amount of time. While the album version is a reflective spoken word, the song is played solo as a smooth transition sequence in the live context. My take is that none did it better than this, the first use of the song in eight years. Here, Ed plays it out for twice as long as usual, to loud ovation by the diehard fans who may have been seeking it. Moline 10/17/2014 is an easy choice for an honorable mention, as it is played acoustically into Around the Bend to close the performance of the whole album out.
Around the Bend
Bridge School Benefit, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA – 10/22/2006
Speaking of the closer, here it is, and in similar fashion to Off He Goes – an acoustic song shines brightest in a hyper-acoustic environment. This time, however, it is the second night of the 2006 round of Bridge School Benefit shows. Deeper lyrical context removed (but with other classic Bridge School moments in mind), it would only make sense that a lullaby would thrive there. The band is controlled and soft (especially on a percussive level), and seems to have intent behind choosing this deep cut for the night.
Final thoughts on the Best of No Code Live Performances
So…how’d I do? Did I exclude a version you think of as an all-timer? Join the Pearl Jam Podcast Community Group on Facebook and find my poll to give your own favorite live versions of No Code songs some love, and as always, keep on rockin’ in the free world.