Completing the experiment: Looking back at Pearl Jam’s massive Mansfield show, 20 years later
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“How can you keep seeing the same band over and over?”
That was a common question a while back. It comes up less now, but that’s likely because everyone who knows me gets tired of asking, or tired of whatever rambling, directionless answer I gave.
But at first, the answer was easy: because they were my favorite band, and I’d never seen them before. And I intended to correct that with a fury.
I was 18 years old when Pearl Jam hit the road in 2000 in support of their Binaural album. But because I wasn’t in the band’s fan club yet, and because getting tickets to a show meant spending a day on the phone trying to get through the line to Ticketmaster, I was shut out of their two shows in Mansfield, Mass., that year. So I spent the next couple of years listening to all the bootlegs and taking in a likely unhealthy amount of their music.
Three years later, I was 21 and they were hitting the road to promote Riot Act, and I was not about to be left out in the cold again. So, via the fan club, I got tickets for July 2, 2003, in Mansfield, as well as both of their shows in New York’s Madison Square Garden on July 8 and 9. Later, the band added two more shows in Mansfield, one for July 3 and another on July 11, following the New York run.
I had drafted almost every combination of friends I could to accompany me on those first four dates, but by the time that fifth show was added, they were all spent. But I obviously wasn’t. So, now much more adept at Ticketmaster and with the internet now much more a factor, I got a single ticket for myself for that last night. And as those shows approached, a rumor began swirling — for those three nights at the Great Woods amphitheater, Pearl Jam was not going to repeat a song.
Did some super fan talk them into that? Did the band invade my inner thoughts and realize, “well that would make Nick happy?” It was such an absurd idea that, until Eddie Vedder confirmed as much on stage on July 2, I could hardly believe it.
With yet another day off of work at the newspaper, I headed up alone and was in the parking lot by 1 p.m. To illustrate how aggressively 21 I was, according to my notes, I showed up to the parking lot armed with a footlong from Subway and a bottle of Mountain Dew to serve as basically my only sustenance for the night. Looking back at that notebook, I also relearned that I spent the three hours or so before the doors opened wandering the parking lot, talking to fans and jotting down more notes to use later. It all points to me wrestling with my own inherent shyness while trying to flex those fledging reporter muscles I was very much working at the time. But things got easier when the doors opened. I found my lone seat, about 20 rows from the stage on Stone’s side, chatting with a couple of fans from Fall River near my neck of the woods in New Bedford in the meantime. 
The band came out with the sun shining around 6:30 p.m., and I had my tape recorder ready to capture the first set. With Vedder’s acoustic pre-sets being left off of the bootlegs all tour, I was afraid this moment would be lost to time as well. So just as I’d captured “Dead Man” before their July 2 show and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” the following day, I’d make sure I’d have this for posterity. And it was weirdly satisfying to be holding up a tape recorder in front of security, safe in the knowledge that it was allowed by the band at the time. And looking back, it’s kind of quaint now, when we live firmly in an era of phones capturing every single moment of life, that all I had was a walkman and a sharpie, and that I was the only one in eyesight with anything at all documenting this.
“Alright, the advice I give to you is the advice we give to ourselves, let’s pace ourselves. It’s gonna be a long one.”
So went Vedder’s introduction to “the experiment,” as he called it, kicking off an hour-long acoustic set that took place before Sleater-Kinney’s proper opening slot. As a way of getting through Mansfield’s strict curfew, which had the potential to fine each band $1,000 per minute past 11 p.m., it was a creative way to get through the more than 40 songs remaining after peeling off 50 the previous two gigs.
A trio of traditional openers — “Long Road,” “Of the Girl” and “Sometimes” — kicked off that set, and it wasn’t long before “All Those Yesterdays” became the first tour debut in Mansfield, appearing on the set for the first time since the end of the Yield tour in 1998.
The acoustic set gets most of the attention, appropriately enough, but the proper set was a monster. Following a version of “Can’t Keep” that built up a kind of dark and brooding atmosphere, the band exploded on “Breakerfall.” The howl alone as that song broke out of its opening riff could’ve blow the half-roof at Great Woods off its moorings.
The hits — or lack thereof — kept coming from there, and I was reaching dizzying new heights all the while. “Tremor Christ” included a concluding scream on its “whoa / you know what it’s like?” climax that hasn’t been bettered since. “Nothing As it Seems” was saved from the acoustic set, which allowed Mike McCready to just wail away into the night. The encore kicked off with what is still the best version of “Breath” I’ve heard in person, and, along with a soaring “Black” and a moving rendition of “Arc” — Vedder's looped-vocal tribute to the nine fans who died at the Roskilde Festival in 2000 — that I again captured on my walkman, felt like we were appropriately winding our way down from this mountain. A string of covers with Sleater-Kinney made up the bulk of that second encore, along with the joke “One Note” gag revived from earlier in the tour. There’s a lot left out of here, but that’s because it was a long show that deserves to be heard in full. And considering I’ve seen them on 29 other occasions, it’s incredible how many songs I’ve still only heard on this night, including “Arc,” “Breakerfall,” “Can’t Keep,” “Driftin’,” “Ghost,” “Of the Girl” and “Sleight of Hand.”
So by the time they closed the main set with “Blood,” I was delirious. I was also waiting for it, having the internal count of what I’d heard and what they were yet to play running like a slot machine in my brain. But one quirk of the entire experiment is that they didn’t quite get to every song they’d prepared for the tour. “Red Mosquito,” “Glorified G” and “Last Kiss” were left off, as was “Last Exit,” which would’ve made for an appropriate final song on this night. But the situation was getting restless in the crowd; the band was approaching 40 minutes past curfew, and ushers were trying to get fans to leave the building. I will never forget the exasperation from one gentleman who, while telling us the show was over and we had to leave, threw up his hands in disgust when the band came out for that third and final encore.
In that moment, the band went back to the only repeat of the series, pulling out “Yellow Ledbetter,” which closed the second show and was likely the only song they could have played that would convince that crowd that they were really finished. And honestly, it was the right call, because the night and the experiment couldn’t have ended any other way. This song or that song aside, they were very, very done, and having McCready serenade the crowd away was the only way to wind up this ride.
That night in Great Woods on July 11, 2003, is one of those where more people probably claim to have been in the building than its 20,000 capacity could allow. And of all the nights I’ve seen the band, including some truly ridiculous performances, when someone asks about the best Pearl Jam show I’ve ever seen, it’s hard not to just admit it was this one.
And it’s funny how the show lives on. In the days that followed, the tape and later CD of the acoustic set stayed in my car for months. That roaring version of “Tremor Christ” has made its way onto several mix tapes and playlists in the subsequent years, and other highlights, like “Nothing as it Seems,” “Blood” and “Breath” stayed in rotation in their own right. And as I was writing this, of course, the entire show was playing again, each song triggering memories that have entangled themselves with the music.
But more than the show itself, the pre-game chat or the countless hours listening back to my tape and the official bootleg, I think about sitting alone in the parking lot afterwards, the venue lights glowing into my Saturn while I transferred the setlist I’d written on my arm in sharpie to a notebook, waiting as the traffic slowly moved and funneled away. Mostly I remember sitting there in a daze, looking out the windshield while we all patiently reentered the real world.
At least, I learned how to readapt to the real world. Those five nights, culminating in that ridiculous burst of stamina and artistry, changed me to this day. Going in, I thought that I’d finally get to see the band and that I’d exercise some demon within. Instead, it grew from an infection to a chronic condition that I live with every day. Every chance to see the band carries the chance to witness something incredible. Every other day is a day to try to find something else to match that feeling, or at least try to relive that magic. And there was an entire community that was just as ridiculous and enthusiastic to share it with.
How can you keep seeing the same band over and over? One of the answers is because July 11, 2003, took place. It was the crest of a wave that I rode for five nights across 10 days, living and breathing the music more than I thought possible. That night was the culmination of years of following the band, countless hours listening to the music through their records and live shows and some sonically terrible yet fascinating audience tapes. For those five nights, I got to live it, and 20 years ago today, I witnessed the pinnacle.
Again, I’ve seen Pearl Jam play some incredible shows in the years since, and some that have rivaled the night in question. And I’ll keep going, because, while improbable, the chances of a show like that occurring again aren’t zero. The next one might even top it.
July 11, 2023
1. We also briefly sat next to a woman who, while we were all making small talk about the setlist, got incensed when I mentioned that it’d be cool to hear “Who You Are,” which hadn’t been played in five years at that point. Later, she walked up to the soundboard and spoke to one of the engineers briefly. And shortly after that, security approached, she started crying and was escorted out before the show started. A curious footnote to the day, literally.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org