After a modest launch 30 years ago in 1993 with the release of Pickin’ On the Movies, the now acclaimed Pickin’ On series has put out many a tribute album, garnering more and more fans with each release.
Tributes to The Beatles and Eagles soon followed, and by 1997, the Pickin’ On series was on fire. Today, it continues to thrive with one hand in traditional bluegrass and the other in popular music.
The latest series, Pickin’ On Pearl Jam, is a collection of some of the biggest and best-loved songs from the Seattle legends reinterpreted through the framework of classic bluegrass instrumentation and vocal stylings. Series stalwarts Iron Horse, which consists of Tony Robertson (mandolin), Vance Henry (guitar, lead vocals), Anthony Richardson (banjo) and Ricky Rogers (bass), have rearranged and performed these new versions of grunge pioneer classics using earnest sensibilities and traditional technique. Pickin’ On Nirvana, the previous Pickin’ On series, also featured the Alabama-based quartet.
Kicking things off with a barn burnin’ version of “Once,” which is the lead track off of Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut album Ten, Iron Horse finds their groove from the jump. And hot damn does it deliver with ferocity, and could stand alone as its own song.
Then it’s time for “Corduroy,” which was one of my favorite PJ songs when I was about 19. It brought me back to the days of teenage uncertainty, sitting around in my Saturn smoking pot and contemplating life with my then high school sweetheart. I remember borrowing Vitalogy from my community college library at that time, and it hit like a ton of bricks. That’s the magic of all music, and how certain songs stick with you like a tattoo, rekindling memories of old. But this isn’t about my Saturn or doomed teenage relationships, so we’ll carry on.
“Waiting, watchin’ the clock / It’s 4 a clock / It’s got to stop / Tell him,” Vedder sings to open PJ’s mega hit “Better Man.” The fourth track sees a reimagining of one of the band’s monster hits, along with its own music video that starts with the impatient “waiting” by a girl with black-painted nails click-clacking on a table while her young boyfriend plays video games.
Though I will say I picture a more serious and mature scene with this song, the video depicts what looks like mid-teenage kids squabbling over petty kiddy stuff. The harmonies Iron Horse produce breathe new yet familiar life to the iconic track. “Better Man” bats cleanup on this record and in fact knocks it out of the park.
The follow-up track is arguably their biggest hit in the raucous number, “Even Flow.” The middle of the album packs the biggest pickin’ punch with this one among others. The mandolin delivers the iconic riff, and damn does it all hit just right.
After rolling through other hits like “Given to Fly, “Spin the Black Circle,” (lead track off of Vitalogy), and “Daughter,” Iron Horse delivers the other Mount Rushmore track in “Alive.” It’s a bit of a mid-tempo number, again with soaring harmonies, and more reserved than some other tracks.
After a few more classics, the album ends with Vitalogy’s “Nothingman,” which I found to be a curious choice for an ender, but no doubt it’s a heavy hitter. And alas, the song is nailed with no-frills originality like the rest.
Pickin’ on Pearl Jam makes it fun to revisit these tracks, both the originals and these inventive new takes. It’s a great album to listen through and find your favorite renditions, which might be different than your Pearl Jam favorites.
I would’ve loved to have heard “Animal” or “Black” or hell, even “Bugs,” on this collection, but hey, they’ve got a sprawling catalogue to choose from.
The Pickin’ On series as a whole is such a unique tradition, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. It’s always a special treat for the ears hearing familiar classics of all genres done in traditional bluegrass.
About the new album, Robertson shares, “It was very different from all the other bands that we have done tributes to up until now. The biggest difference was the way that we had to reinvent the way we listen to a project before we could start massaging the music into bluegrass, and still keep the spirit of such a great band intact.”
He went on to say, “The entire approach and feel were very different for us to get hold of, in that bluegrass is very metered with phrasing and timing being 4/4 driven, and then Pearl Jam brought their own meter to the party… One example of this was in the way ‘Spin the Black Circle’ was transcribed. The music pushed bluegrass boundaries, and tapped into an interesting approach that we have not been familiar with, in that it had no sense of bluegrass feel, but worked out great to make a cut that makes you think ‘did I just hear that?’”
I just hope Eddie will get to listen to this. (and I bet Iron Horse does too)
Track listing for Pickin’ On Pearl Jam:
- Better Man
- Even Flow
- Given to Fly
- Spin the Black Circle
- Just Breathe
- Yellow Ledbetter