Getting Raw & Personal with Pearl Jam’s Riot Act

By: Brian Horwitz | November 12, 2021
Pearl Jam Riot Act Album Anniversary

There are a lot of ways to unpack, dissect, and analyze Riot Act. There’s the album itself, with its stripped-down aesthetic and overtly political stance. There’s the era in which it came out and how the songs weave a story with what was going on in society, politics, and the band’s recent history. A lot of that has already been told.

What I find fascinating is how this album resonates with a lot of hardcore fans in very unique ways compared to other albums. It’s a raw, personal album to some, a super-charged political album to others, and to some it’s a disjointed effort with few highlights (and I could not disagree more). It holds a very unique place in the PJ canon. It’s the first album post-Roskilde and post-2000 election, and it wears its anger and vitriol on its sleeve. Any attempts to try to dissect and give the songs justice have already been done. So I want to discuss what this album and era mean to me, personally.

Riot Act came out on November 12, 2002. Upon its release, all I knew were “I Am Mine” and “Bu$hleaguer” from the previously released single. I dug both songs, and I could tell that the forthcoming album was going to be a vastly different affair than its predecessor, Binaural. “Can’t Keep” sucked me in immediately with it’s seductive drum beat and trippy guitar parts, but as the album unfolded, I realized that what they were going for on the album was a real bare-bones approach, and it sounded like a lot of it was recorded live in the studio, which I thought was a nice approach.

A Pilgrimage to Seattle & an Epic 6-Show Run in the Northeast

I was no stranger to traveling to see the band by that point, but living in the northeast, it was always easy to catch a few shows every tour. Over the years, I had already managed to see them all over the northeast, traveling to Boston, Philly, up to Montreal, and several points in between. But in 2002, I decided to go one step further: I booked a trip to catch the two Key Arena shows in Seattle in early December. To me, the album and those Seattle shows will always be intertwined in my head.  The ending of “Cropduster”, the choruses of “Ghost” and “Help Help”, and various other parts of the album were swirling in my head leading up to the shows and getting to see most of them in the “homeland,” so to speak, was an incredible experience.

I was 26 and life was a lot simpler. Traveling to Seattle with a coworker, my best friend, and his then-girlfriend was an amazing experience. While we were there, my best friend proposed to his girlfriend (I would, in turn, propose to my now-wife the morning of 6/25/08 MSG). I met a lot of fans the night before the shows at a cover band gig, drove to Mt. St. Helens, went to the Experience Music Project (now MoPoP), and then, of course, had a blast at the 2 shows.

In 2003, I caught seven more shows on the Riot Act tour, and I still think it was one of their best tours ever.  Pearl Jam got angry again, only this time it was directed at war criminals and crooked politicians, instead of fame and the media like in the early days. Go watch “Daughter” with the “War” tag from the Live at the Showbox DVD, you’ll see exactly what I mean. Of those aforementioned seven shows in 2003, 6 of them were (almost) in a row:

  1. 7/2/03 – Mansfield, MA
  2. 7/3/03 – Mansfield, MA
  3. 7/5/03 – Camden, NJ
  4. 7/8/03 – MSG (my first MSG show)
  5. 7/9/03 – MSG
  6. 7/11/03 – Mansfield, MA

The entire week and a half was simply incredible. You’d be hard pressed to find a better consecutive span of dates at any point in their history.  MSG 1 became a DVD, and at the 3 Mansfield shows, or “The Experiment” as they became known, they didn’t repeat a single song over the course of the three nights (well ok, one song). I will never forget being in NYC for the MSG shows and my buddy texting me saying that the local radio station in Boston announced that the band would be playing a pre-set at the 7/11 show because they had a lot of ground to cover to keep their promise of trying to play, well, everything. I was on cloud nine and I still had the MSG shows to look forward to!

7/11 is still their longest show to date: 45 songs, if you include the pre-set songs into the total. Some people will claim it doesn’t count because Sleater-Kinney followed the pre-set, but whatever…they’re wrong! It was a great time to be a fan. None of us would have been surprised if the album and tour never materialized, and the band decided to hang it up and go their separate ways. The band went through hell in 2000, and to see them rejuvenated and doing what they do best again was not something we took lightly.

Crowdsourcing Live Performances of Riot Act Tracks

I did a couple of write-ups recently for the blog where I tried choosing definitive versions of songs from Ten and Vs., and for Riot Act, I had a few stellar versions in mind, but I decided to do a little crowdsourcing to see what other people had to say. The responses were great, so here is a nice list of Riot Act versions for you to check out, as well as some brief descriptions:

Can’t Keep” – Tokyo 3/3/2003; Camden 7/5/2003; Benaroya Hall 10/22/2003: “Ed solo on ukelele…it’s just so killer, uke mess-ups and all”

Save You” – Sendai 2/28/2003: “I love the subdued crowds juxtaposed with the angrier songs. This is a cool one for sure”; Pittsburgh 4/26/2003: “Ed crushes the vocals and Matt does this stutter-step move on the drum kit at 3:10 that just kills!”; Santiago 11/22/2005: “The intensity of it and the crowd is unreal!”

Love Boat Captain” – New York City 7/8/2003: “What a great way to open an epic show!”; Cincinnati 10/1/2014: “A surprising intro jam and a killer middle jam with a Jumping Jack Flash tag? This is a no-brainer”; St. Paul 10/19/2014: “Same arrangement as Cincinnati, but I think a little more vibrant solo by Mike”; London 6/18/2018: “Yes his voice isn’t the best but it’s got a great intro and speech and it gives me chills every time I hear it”

Cropduster” – Perth 2/23/2003

Ghost” – Montreal 6/29/2003;  Barcelona 7/10/2018

I Am Mine” – Champaign 4/23/2003; State College 5/3/2003; New York City 7/8/2003: “And it’s not even close”

Thumbing My Way” – Sendai 2/28/2003; Benaroya 10/22/2003; Boston 9/4/2018: “It’s a beautiful song anyway, but I cried throughout the entire song that night. It marked the end of an extremely emotional five weeks for me”

You Are” – Champaign 4/23/2003; New York City 7/8/2003: “A killer version made even better by being on the official DVD”; Philadelphia 10/31/2009: “You Are from the Spectrum was absolutely picture perfect.”

Get Right” – Melbourne 2/18/2003

Green Disease” – New York City 7/8/2003: “[see a] Pattern here?”; Ottawa 9/16/2005

Help Help” – Raleigh 4/15/2003; Hershey 7/12/2003; Prague 7/1/2018; Seattle 8/8/2018 “Help into Help Help in Seattle 2018 was pretty great”

Bu$hleaguer” – Uniondale 4/30/2003: “Gotta be Nassau Coliseum”; Mansfield 7/2/2003

1/2 Full” – Osaka 3/4/2003: “1/2 Full from Osaka had a scorching solo. One of the best I’d ever heard”; New York City 7/8/2003 “1/2 Full on Live At The Garden is awesome. Riot Act is not my fave album, but when I watched the DVD, 1/2 Full was great”; Mansfield 7/11/2003 “The main set of the Mansfield Experiment is not loaded with top-tier versions of songs by any means, but 1/2 Full is a BEAST.  It’s a Mike showcase in a song that IS a Mike showcase”

All or None” – Osaka 3/4/2003; Benaroya 10/22/2003: “Iconic Mike moment” “I’m a Benaroya freak, and All or None is fanfuckingtastic”; Chicago 8/2/2007: “Definitely live from the Vic!”; Seattle 8/10/2018: “Seattle N2 2018 because it’s hot hot HOT”

Thank you Seth D, Curtis H, Mike P, Eric L, Danielle T, Gabe S, David J, Luke D, Javier H, Mark K, Kirk W, Tom J, Nick S, Jeff P, Tanya K, and anyone I may have missed – this was a fun little project and I’m glad so many people were up for participating!

Brian Horwitz

Writer & Contributors

Winter 1991, 15 years old: I heard Alive on the radio and had to go out and buy the CD. I will never forget sitting on the floor in my room and listening to it for the first time. I skipped right to track 3 so I could hear Alive again, and my father walked in the room. He looked at me and proceeded to give it a thumbs down. I knew I was on to something. (He now likes the song, so it all worked out in the end)

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  1. Love this reflection article, Brian. That run of shows you attended in July 2003 is incredible. I wish I hadn’t had my head so far up Dave Matthews Band’s ass at that point in my life or, at least, had a better balance of the concerts I attended back then. When it comes to bootlegs, the 2003 Riot Act Tour shows are definitely some of the most played in my collection. The Experiment being right there at the top of the list. Atlanta, Little Rock and Champaign don’t get enough credit IMO.

    As far as performances of songs go, I’d also call out Honolulu 2006 for Love Boat Captain when Boom got to perform for the home crowd, 1/2 Full at Third Man Records, Cropduster in Mexico City, and Can’t Keep opening the second set of The Experiment. Thanks again for sharing!

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