Pearl Jam’s best live guitar moments, ranked
We’ve combed through hundreds of hours of grunge bliss to pick out the most stunning Pearl Jam guitar moments and best live performances that you can listen to right now.
Image: Paul Bergen / Redferns
Twenty years ago, Pearl Jam made an absurd announcement. They would release full-length, professionally recorded live albums capturing all 72 shows on their 2000 Binaural tour. No one knew whether this Official Bootleg series, as the band labeled it, would stick. Would it be feasible? Would there be demand? Wouldn’t some shows just suck – embarrassing the band if preserved?
But the bootlegs kept coming, and continued far beyond that original 2000 tour – they now document (almost) every subsequent Pearl Jam gig. To mark the 20th anniversary of this unprecedented endeavor, here’s our ranking of the series’ 20 best offerings. These are not strictly the band’s 20 greatest shows in that regard, as for the sake of consistency we’ve excluded everything pre-2000 as well as the non-bootleg Vault releases like Chicago 2007. Some great tours, meanwhile, suffered from subpar recording quality (2005); and some songs got their definitive versions during shows that were otherwise average.
Instead, these are the 20 best cohesive listening experiences out of some 400-plus in circulation (less the ones that your correspondent personally attended as it’s hard to be objective if you were there!). Taken together, they offer a scrapbook of the band’s travels and transformations over the last two decades.
20. 11 November 2011 – Porto Alegre, Brazil
The band paint here with many colors, moving gracefully between their most breakneck and their most stately. Frontman Eddie Vedder is in fine form all night.
Stone Gossard’s crunchy tone in the first Daughter bridge at 1:05.
19. 25 June 2014 – Vienna, Austria
This performance is a little heavy on the covers, but you should never skip a show that features the triple whammy of Footsteps, Brain of J and Fuckin’ Up
Gossard’s sublime solo in Fuckin’ Up
18. 1 September 2000 – Camden, New Jersey
Heading back to nearly the beginning and with good reason – from the tip-toed opening riff in Sometimes to the Ozzy Osbourne tag on Yellow Ledbetter, everything just cooks here. Plus: features the only appearance of Breath that year.
One of the best Black solos Mike McCready has ever played.
17. 10 May 2016 – Toronto, Ontario
Leave it to Pearl Jam to kick off a two-night arena stand by playing Binaural, their dark and neglected sixth album, in its entirety. But even if you stopped caring after Vs, this evening found the band on fire.
McCready’s dissonant squalls in Parting Ways that end the Binaural portion of the set.
16. 9 September 2006 – Marseille, France
This set was notable for the generous helping of rarities – playing Fatal for just the third time live, while Dirty Frank made its seventh and still most recent appearance in concert – but in truth it didn’t matter what they were playing that night, what’s special about this show is how lean and aggressive the band sounds throughout.
A scorching, searing take on Glorified G
15. 30 April 2003 – Uniondale, New York
This set became infamous for the moment when Pearl Jam got booed and heckled by their own fans after they played anti-George W Bush protest song Bus$hleaguer, but it’s led to the show’s magical first half has being tragically forgotten in the controversy. Opening with a shocking, stunning Long Road/rearviewmirror combo, it never lets up from there, becoming a strong contender for the best first set in Pearl Jam history.
It’s fashionable to use Even Flow as a bathroom break amongst hardcore fans, but McCready goes to Mars on this one.
14. 19 November 2006 – Newcastle, Australia
Local fans petitioned to make this show happen, and Pearl Jam responded with an instant classic. The Masters of War, Footsteps, Crown of Thorns, Alone sequence is particularly enthralling: four deep cuts covering lots of musical ground.
Gossard ripping into Alive straight out of the gate – the band play this song nearly every night, but almost never as the show opener.
13. 9 October 2000 – Rosemont, Illinois
The night before this show, Pearl Jam played a frigid outdoor gig at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley. Here, they rewarded their traveling fans’ sacrifice with a 30-song marathon, flawlessly performed. 20 years later, through headphones, you can hear how hard they were working to make this one special.
McCready’s nice nod to Stairway to Heaven in his Crazy Mary solo.
12. 21 November 2006 – Adelaide, Australia
On paper, nowhere near as notable as the preceding show in Newcastle. But on tape, Pearl Jam have rarely sounded better. A great example of why we need the bootleg series, to capture those ordinary, underestimated tour stops where everything just works.
Mike turning his volume off and on at the start of his Immortality solo.
11. 3 July 2003 – Mansfield, Massachusetts
The 2003 Mansfield shows were immortalised by the third and final night: the longest show Pearl Jam has ever played (depending on how you count). While that historic night must have felt unbeatable if you were there, as a bootleg listening experience, this forgotten second night edges it. The searing takes on Release and I Got Shit remind you exactly what it is that makes Pearl Jam such an enthralling live entity.
The solo on Alive might be the most intense version of this trademark Pearl Jam moment of the last two decades.
10. 4 July 2012 – Berlin, Germany
It’s hard to pick a single highlight here, because the whole show flows like one long suite. The sound quality here is utterly pristine, too, even by the bootleg series’ high standards. Pearl Jam always rock, but on this recording they shimmer.
The interplay and harmonies between McCready and Gossard on ultra-rarity Hard To Imagine.
9. 3 April 2013 – Buenos Aires, Argentina
When Pearl Jam played Buenos Aires in 2011, bassist Jeff Ament called the crowd the best they’d ever seen. Again, it might have felt different if you were in the audience, but as a bootleg, this less historic festival gig from two years later wins out. Translating the It’s OK tag into an ‘Está Bien’ singalong sends it over the top, and it never comes back down.
Gossard’s filthy riff under McCready’s Corduroy solo, starting at 4:14.
8. 6 November 2000 – Seattle, Washington
Four months before this show, nine fans were trampled to death during Pearl Jam’s performance at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and the band nearly broke up on the spot. They made it to this hometown tour finale exhausted and scarred, but not defeated. An iconic show shrouded in myth, this is one of the most cathartic performances in Pearl Jam history, featuring a stunning vocal improv on Better Man and the first performance of Alive since the Roskilde tragedy.
Gossard’s eerie, psychedelic riffs during the Daughter outro jam.
7. 9 July 2003 – New York, New York
This show is sandwiched in between two that both get way more love – the Live at the Garden DVD and the legendary Mansfield night three – but truth be told, this second night at MSG holds up the best. The sequence concluding the main set (Deep, Present Tense, Nothingman, State Of Love And Trust, Porch) is perfection, and showcases the band as masters of many different styles, from garage rockers to pop balladeers to acid jammers.
The intro riff to Present Tense, glowing through one of the deepest, warmest tones Mike McCready has ever produced.
6. 11 September 2011 – Toronto, Ontario
Pearl Jam played Toronto on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, rising to the occasion with subtlety and grace. Vedder made no mention of the date, but the band conjured its significance nevertheless, from the plaintive Long Road opening to a thunderous finale featuring hometown hero “Uncle” Neil Young.
The end of Rockin’ In The Free World, with Neil Young leading his ‘nephews’ through several false finishes.
5. 16 June 2000 – Katowice, Poland
A show that was never supposed to happen. Pearl Jam were booked to play Budapest on this date, but that gig was abruptly canceled, stranding PJ in the Polish city of Katowice, where they’d played the previous night. They returned to the same venue and sold tickets at half-price, then improvised a superb setlist for the lucky crowd. This is the sound of a band having fun and hitting its stride on a lengthy European tour, and an oddly resonant listen when you remember the tragedy that followed two weeks later in Denmark.
The kaleidoscopic effects in Sleight Of Hand.
4. 28 April 2003 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
We don’t know who Pete is, or what kind of hardship he was facing, but the power and emotion Vedder conveys as improvises lyrics to Better Man leave a lump in the throat as he sings, “We’ve all gotta be strong, But some people gotta be strong when they’re young”. It’s the kind of earnestness that that can be dismissed as schmaltziness by some; but when the band kicks into Alive after that heartfelt tribute to an ailing fan, you can hear and feel the remarkable connection between a band and their fans.
The wonderful solos in Nothing As it Seems.
3. 22 July 2006 – George, Washington
On paper, this is a contender for Pearl Jam’s best setlist of all time, and on tape it’s no less impressive. A festive show in scorching heat, at the famed Gorge Amphitheatre in PJ’s home state, the band was simply firing on all cylinders. This is another show with no obvious highlight, but one that’s just impeccable all the way through.
The solo in Life Wasted.
2. 17 October 2014 – Moline, Illinois
Pearl Jam have established a great live tradition of saving their biggest surprises for the smallest markets: See the marathon in Charlottesville, Virginia; the experimental setlist construction on the Garden State Parkway or the deluge of rarities in Zagreb, Croatia. It’s their way of making the most patient fans feel seen, of sustaining an aura of mystery around every gig. This 2014 show in Moline, Illinois is the crown jewel of that collection. On that night, for no obvious reason, Pearl Jam decided to play their 1996 album No Code in its entirety. While mainstream music audiences have remained indifferent to that fourth LP, it remains a favourite among hardcore fans, so this one-off performance sent shockwaves through the Pearl Jam community. The flawless performance made up just a small portion of the epic night, and kicked off an era of rare, enchanting full-album performances
The solo in Garden.
1. 3 May 2003 – University Park, Pennsylvania
For about two-and-a-half weeks, from mid-April into the first days of May 2003, Pearl Jam could simply do no wrong. They wrapped that leg of the Riot Act tour on the Penn State University campus, emptying the tank with a show for the ages – their longest ever as of that point. It was spontaneous, political, expansive, conversational, a bit sappy; in other words, it was uniquely Pearl Jam.Truly, this one has all the elements and then some: a perfect Release opener, some pitch perfect between-song banter from Vedder, Breath, lead vocals from Stone, a stunning Better Man/Save It For Later combo, an attempted rarity botched with charming good humour (Satan’s Bed). And then there’s Vedder’s tribute to Sarge, a crew member who had recently deployed to Iraq – a touching moment that shows off the humanity and decency of the band. This show is a great performance, but it’s also more than that. In its ebullience, conscience, and warmth, it’s something like a mission statement for band and fanbase alike.
At the 3:35 in Corduroy, McCready jumps into his solo with a vigour that portends the energy of the ensuing three hours.
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