How Pearl Jam Healed Wounds With Massive ‘Riot Act’ Tour
In early 2003, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron and new friend Boom Gaspar hit the road in support of Pearl Jam's seventh studio album, Riot Act.
After four warm-up gigs in Seattle in December 2002 — two at the Showbox and two at KeyArena — Pearl Jam were ready to celebrate their new record, but they were also ready to heal wounds still felt from their world tour in support of Binaural. On June 30, 2000, at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, nine people were trampled to death when thousands of fans stormed the stage to see Pearl Jam. The band's following two shows were canceled, and Pearl Jam didn't return to the stage until August. Their tour would finish in Seattle on Nov. 6, 2000, the day before the United States presidential election.
Between that tour and the next, Pearl Jam played 11 shows; three in 2001 in Mountain View, Calif., and Seattle, and eight in 2002, from New York to Chicago and back to Seattle for their Riot Act warm-up performances.
Come Feb. 8, 2003, the band and fans alike were ready to honor those killed in Denmark by embarking on a massive tour that would take them all over the globe from Australia to Japan, across the U.S. and Canada, wrapping things up in Mexico. In addition to the closure needed from the Roskilde tragedy, Pearl Jam and America were a couple of years into the George W. Bush presidency, an incumbency that would influence both the new album and the tour.
The first show opened with Johnny Marr. formerly of the Smiths, taking the stage at Brisbane Entertainment Centre in Brisbane, Australia. He was joined by his band the Healers and would tour much of Australia as Pearl Jam's opening act for nearly the entire month, from Brisbane and Sydney to Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth. Once the Pacific leg of the tour wrapped up, Pearl Jam headed back to the U.S. where Sleater-Kinney and Sparta would provide support throughout April and May, with Idlewild and the Buzzcocks lending a hand for June and some of July. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and company would come back to the tour to help close out the final seven shows.
On opening night, once Marr left the stage, Pearl Jam kicked off the Riot Act tour with the album's first track, "Can't Keep."
The tour highlighted Pearl Jam's relentless onstage energy and dedication to crafting unique live experiences night in and night out, while also lifting up their collective political voices. With 72 shows across the world—the Cincinnati gig on June 19 was canceled due to heavy rains that flooded the Riverbend Music Center amphitheater—the band played the better part of 2,000 songs for screaming fans. Unsurprisingly, "Even Flow" from Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten, was performed the most, with Riot Act's second single, "Save You," coming in at second. Other songs in the Top 10 most played on the tour were "Corduroy," "Better Man," "Do the Evolution," "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," "Love Boat Captain," "Daughter," "Alive" and "I Am Mine."
Though those songs are all unforgettable in the live setting, the most memorable moments on tour came when Vedder used his voice to defend the First Amendment, with the help of Riot Act's unconventional song, "Bu$hleaguer." At many of the gigs, Vedder performed that track while wearing a Halloween mask of President Bush. Most notably, and perhaps most controversially, he impaled the mask on his microphone stand during Pearl Jam's show in Denver; a few weeks later in New York, fans attempted to hold him accountable by chanting, "U-S-A," taunting Vedder following "Bu$hleaguer," which opened their second encore set.
"You didn't like that one," Vedder asked the crowd at Uniondale's Nassau Coliseum. "I don't understand, maybe you like [President Bush] because he's going to give you a tax cut. Maybe you like him because he's a 'real guy' that relates to you because he's so down home." As the crowd chanted "U-S-A," Vedder concurred with their patriotism and said, "I just think that all of us in this room should have a voice in how the U.S.A. is represented," which was met with cheers. Following that, Pearl Jam tore into a cover of the Clash's "Know Your Rights," and ended the night with their always impeccable rendition of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."
On the topic of cover songs, Pearl Jam's tour in 2003 featured more than 50, with several fan favorites making appearances—like Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary," which became a staple on this tour, and Young's "Fuckin' Up"—and others that have never seen the light of day since, like Bruce Springsteen's "Growin' Up," which was performed in Holmdel, N.J. about 14 miles from the Boss' birthplace in Long Branch.
Pearl Jam seemed to pull out all the stops on their 2003 run. When they played a three-night residency at Mansfield's Tweeter Center Boston—July 2, 3 and 11—they played a completely unique set every night, clocking in 105 songs with only one repeat, "Yellow Ledbetter." Before Sleater-Kinney performed on July 11, Pearl Jam actually opened the evening with an all-acoustic set, and then played a regular set following Sleater-Kinney. "The advice we give to you is the advice we give to ourselves: Let's pace ourselves," Vedder told the crowd. "I appreciate you coming down earlier to participate in the experiment."
Politics, cover songs and set lists aside, the heart of Pearl Jam broke through the noise of the world when Vedder performed the vocal-only "Arc" over the course of nine shows between June 5 and July 18, He offered the song as a tribute to those who lost their lives at Roskilde three years earlier.
Pearl Jam's 2003 tour will forever reign as one of their most prolific, and it will live on in history as all 72 performances were captured for the band's official Bootleg series, which started during the Binaural tour. Most shows could only be purchased through Pearl Jam's official website, but eventually a handful would be made available in local retail stores. In addition to being able to relive tour highlights through the bootlegs, Pearl Jam released Live at the Garden on Nov. 11, 2003, which captured their July 8 performance at New York City's Madison Square Garden.
Opening night in Brisbane featured a setlist heavy on Riot Act tunes, but also featured a good deal of songs from Vs. and Vitalogy. Along with "Crazy Mary," Pearl Jam also covered the Who's "The Kids Are Alright" as the tour kicked off. Months later, as the run of shows came to a close, Pearl Jam took the stage at Palacio de los Deportes in Mexico City on July 19 and performed a 33-song set that featured 10 covers and a healthy helping of tracks from throughout their career. While it's impossible to pick one highlight from the show, fans will never forget watching Vedder call Johnny Ramone, who would pass away a little more than year later, on his flip phone.
"Mexico City just said hello to you, Johnny," Vedder said. With every fan screaming, he added, "Okay ... We're gonna play a Ramones song." With that, Pearl Jam kicked into "I Believe in Miracles."
The tour opened in Brisbane with "Can't Keep" and Pearl Jam closed the tour out with "Yellow Ledbetter" as they said farewell to the 26,000 fans who packed the arena in Mexico. Though Vedder was singing, "I don't, I don't want to stay," there's no question that every fan in attendance wanted the night, and the tour, to go on forever.