Why Pearl Jam’s “Hail, Hail” David Letterman Performance Is One Of Their All Time Greatest

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September 20, 1996:

Twenty years ago today, Pearl Jam made their Late Show with David Letterman debut with an epic version of “Hail, Hail.”

Aside from a surprise guest appearance from Eddie Vedder, joining Paul Shaffer and company on an impromptu “Black” jam, September 20, 1996 marked the band’s first official visit to The Late Show. It was an intriguing time in the bands history. Their fourth record, the artistic No Code, had just been released a month earlier and the band was about to embark on their ticketmaster-less tour that brought them to more obscure venues. In a way, it was the beginning of a DIY approach.

Before hitting The Late Show, Pearl Jam performed two warm-up gigs in Seattle. It had been their first time back as a full band since November 1995. No Code’s first single, “Who You Are,” had just begun to hit the airwaves.

I vividly remember loading up the VHS in the basement to tape the show. As morning barely came around, I bolted downstairs and hit play. I was immediately floored by this performance. To start, the band appeared locked in, and taking this very seriously. They truly came out swinging.

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I believe “Hail, Hail” on Letterman to be one of the greatest single-song, live deliveries in the remarkable twenty five year career of Pearl Jam. One that has been filled with jaw-dropping live experiences. It was an emotional performance filled with soul. There was an energy transmitted through the airwaves that was undeniable.

What really made it out-of-this-world (aside from Stone Gossard sporting full orange from head to toe, Lloyd Christmas style) was the way Vedder delivered the outro. As the band exploded into the opening D chord of the last chorus, Vedder approaches the microphone with his left hand behind his back, his right hand clutched with his pointer finger shaking towards the sky. He rips into “I find it on the run in race that can’t be won, yeah,” pats his heart over the last “Hail, Hail,” again with the right hand clutch/finger point combo, and then grabs the mic in his signature style; where you feel it might explode from the passion applied. He closes his eyes and pours himself into the last “I’d like to be your one,” at the 3:18 mark. It contains the most beautifully intense vocal run with an emphasis on the “your.”

That one line in that one performance, was the first time I was ever brought to tears from the power of music. It was the introduction that music can so graciously affect me in that way. And I loved every second of it.

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Adding to the uniqueness of this show, which was commercial free/sponsor free, Pearl Jam would then perform “Leaving Here” as the credits rolled on one of the most memorable Letterman performances in history.

There’s was a bit of uncertainty with what was going with Pearl Jam at this time in 1996. You didn’t know what to expect. September 20, 1996, was the first time many fans got to see them reappear. Oddly enough, for those watching and witnessing this rendition of “Hail, Hail,” you felt like you were on a run in a race that was just won.

Pearl Jam – “Hail, Hail” – The Late Show With David Letterman

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