It is no secret that Eddie Vedder is the face of Pearl Jam. He is the band’s leader and charismatic frontman. However, as talented and irreplaceable as Vedder is, lead guitarist Mike McCready is equally valuable to the group’s sound. Of course, this is old news to diehard fans who have been listening to McCready shred since 1990 with Temple of the Dog (and for the true McCready addicts, his original band Shadow in the 1980’s). While he has been receiving more recognition for his talents in recent years, he is still one of the most underrated guitarists of all time. His sound is a mix between the wah-drenched tones of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn (his idol) with the bluesy feel of B.B. King, all accompanied by a stage presence taken directly from Ace Frehley (another idol). Yet, he also manages to have a tone all his own. Anyone who has seen McCready live knows how truly immersed he is in the music he plays, an admirable trait all Pearl Jam members share equally. And with that, we offer you the top 10 Mike McCready solos during his time with Pearl Jam. It certainly was not easy, and, unfortunately, there will be some great moments left off the list. After all, this is just 10 solos from nearly 1,000 live shows and 10 studio albums. But, rest assured, the list is comprised of all things McCready: aggressive blues, stunning emotion, and face-melting energy. Enjoy!
10. “Eruption” (Van Halen cover) XL Center, Hartford, CT 10/25/13
McCready played “Eruption” live for just the second time ever during Pearl Jam’s Wrigley Field show in July 2013. That was after a nearly three-hour rain delay had driven fans to scramble for cover, only to return to see the band power through a full set with loads of energy that saved the night from disappointment. While his Wrigley Field run of the song was solid, McCready seems to have a better feel in this version from October 2013 at Hartford’s XL Center just a few months later. It goes without saying that Eddie Van Halen’s legendary solo, which has been covered by guitarists for decades now, is incredibly difficult to play. But, McCready does the song justice here, leading into a raucous rendition of another Van Halen classic, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” If nothing else, “Eruption” displays McCready’s technical abilities on guitar, such as the notable finger tapping that closes the song.
9. “Rockin’ in the Free World” (Neil Young Cover) Landgraaf, Netherlands (Pinkpop Festival) 6/6/92
This is an important pair of solos from McCready for a few different reasons. This was at the time when Pearl Jam was breaking on a global scale. “Grunge” was quickly becoming a worldwide phenomenon, and the off-the-wall energy displayed throughout Pearl Jam’s Pinkpop ’92 performance was part of what cemented them into the movement and made them a beloved entity for years to come. In addition, the band no longer plays the song this way. Not long after their appearance in Landgraaf, Netherlands, Pearl Jam abandoned the slow, brooding intro to their cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” heard here, for the more traditional three-chord progression they have played ever since. Finally, note the pure emotion on McCready’s face during both of his solos. Putting his wah pedal to good use, he brings this legendary performance to a fitting close.
8. “Red Mosquito” iWireless Center, Moline, IL 10/17/14
Pearl Jam’s show in Moline, IL in October 2014 will forever be remembered as the first time the 1996 album No Code was played in its entirety. Of course, track eight is “Red Mosquito.” Using a guitar slide, McCready emulates a mosquito frantically flying through the air. The pace of the sliding picks up as the song progresses, ending in a blistering solo. Overall, an underrated song from a record approaching its 20th anniversary this August. Oh, and thanks to modern technology, you can watch/listen to this version in beautiful 4K quality!
7. “Life Wasted” 02 World, Berlin, Germany 7/5/12
Pearl Jam’s self-titled “Avocado” album turned 10 years old this past May. This version of the opening track “Life Wasted” from Berlin in July 2012 is good all-around: Vedder’s vocals are on point, drummer Matt Cameron’s fills are perfectly timed (as usual), and the entire band just clicks. Outside of this one performance, the full show was a highlight from the band’s 2012 run in Europe. But, again, McCready does his best work at the end of the song. He bends and bends his strings until you assume they must be breaking. But, they do not, and the result is a ferocious display.
NOTE: The sound quality of this video is not great. However, if you own the bootleg or someone that does, do your best to find this version of the song.
6. “Go” Aladdin Theater, Las Vegas, NV 11/30/93
You would be hard-pressed to find a song as hard-hitting and aggressive in the Pearl Jam catalog as “Go” (early versions of “Blood,” “Deep,” “Why Go,” and “Not For You” do come to mind). In late November 1993, Pearl Jam’s sophomore album Vs. had been taking the world by storm for just over a month. At the time, the album set a record for the most copies sold in its first week of release at 950,378 copies. “Go” and “Animal” are the first two tracks on the record–a pair of short but extremely powerful songs, that both feature wailing solos from McCready. With music written by former drummer Dave Abbruzzese, “Go” grants McCready two solos. The first comes as a filler after the song’s first chorus. The second, longer one drives the song home with authority. The guitar-behind-the-head style seen here is a nice nod to Hendrix as well.
5. “Nothing as it Seems” Frankenstadion, Nuremberg, Germany 6/11/00
This Jeff Ament-penned tune is dominated by McCready from start to finish. You would think that he wrote it himself, not the band’s bassist. Nonetheless, McCready demonstrates his skills with effects pedals here (delay, wah, chorus), to create some of the best moments from the experimental 2000 album Binaural. While “Nothing as it Seems” is good in the studio, it is even better when unleashed on stage.
4. “Black” Parque O’Higgins, Santiago, Chile (Lollapalooza Chile) 4/6/13
“Black” is obviously one of Pearl Jam’s most popular songs. The lyrics and vocal performance from Vedder alone make it a true pleasure to listen to each and every time it is played. McCready makes the song his own as well with the solo he provides. As time has gone on live, the solos for this tune have become progressively longer, to the point where “Black” typically clocks in between 7-10 minutes these days. In the middle of this epic nine-minute version from April 2013, just when you think he might wind things down, McCready takes a trip to another world yet again. Vedder’s short vocal run around the 7:15 mark is unique to this version of the classic as well.
3. “Garden” Fox Theater, Atlanta, GA 4/3/94
If you are a Pearl Jam fan and you have never listened to the bootleg of the band’s second show from Atlanta’s Fox Theater in 1994, make sure you change that as soon as possible. The show was aired on local radio in Atlanta and immediately became a widely circulated bootleg among the fanbase. It still is to this day. This was also the same day that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain went missing. Vedder prefaces “Go” by simply saying, “This song’s for Kurt.” Not only is this one of the best Pearl Jam shows from the Vitalogy era, but the performance of “Garden” is a particular standout thanks to McCready’s noodling solo sandwiched between Vedder’s vocals in the choruses. Hear for yourself.
2. “Even Flow” Hyde Park, London, England (Hard Rock Calling) 6/25/10
Nowadays, most diehard Pearl Jam fans use “Even Flow” for a bathroom break–I get it. The song has been played over 800 times, it is the most well-known song in the catalog, and it can feel like it drags on after awhile. But, even if you have had enough of hearing the lyrics over and over, stay for McCready’s solo next time you go to a show. Just do it. Here, we see him channeling his inner Hendrix once again, playing behind his head and on point to boot. The solo for this song has only gotten better since 1991, and if you rob yourself of seeing it in person, you might come to regret it when you hear the bootleg a few months later.
1. Little Wing/Maggot Brain (Jimi Hendrix Experience/Funkadelic cover) Marcus Amphitheater, Milwaukee, WI 7/9/95
In the 2011 Pearl Jam documentary PJ20, Eddie Vedder claims, “He’s [McCready] channeling stuff that sounds like it’s coming from the f***ing heavens, but I think it’s from the inside. There’s something spiritual about the way he plays.” McCready proves this evaluation true in style in the performance above. Joined by Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, Pearl Jam launches into Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” followed by the epic jam known as “Maggot Brain” by 1970s funk band Funkadelic. If there was ever evidence of a guitarist “losing their mind,” this would be it. Both songs are segued together and covered with such feeling and tenacity, it is as if McCready was truly out of this world for the nine minutes he plays. In fact, it was reported that McCready was hospitalized after this Milwaukee show in July 1995 due to dehydration and exhaustion. It is hard to believe the band has never covered “Maggot Brain” since. Then again, after a performance like this, it would be nearly impossible to top.
If you have made it this far, surely you are thinking, “What about ‘Yellow Ledbetter?’ ‘Alive?’ ‘Immortality?'” As previously mentioned, this is just one take on a guitarist whose body of work is immense and incredibly wide-ranging. So, here is a shorter list of some other incredible performances from the one and only, Mike McCready!
“Alive” Little John’s Farm, Reading, England (Reading Festival) 8/27/06
The reason “Alive” is not on this “Top 10” list is simply because it just might be the most difficult song to choose a solo for. It has been played so many times and is loved by so many fans, trying to pick one would be silly. Regardless, here is one great rendition.
“Yellow Ledbetter” Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY 5/21/10
Again, a toss-up. Take your pick. McCready’s playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is always a crowd-pleaser.
“All or None” Vic Theater, Chicago, IL 8/2/07
This Riot Act deep cut is certainly a rarity, but has made more appearances in live shows of late. Since 2002, it has only been played live 15 times.
“Immortality” Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam, Holland 6/17/14
Also, check out the version of “Immortality” from Pearl Jam’s Self Pollution Radio Broadcast back in 1995 if you have the bootleg–killer.
“Wake Up” (Mad Season) The Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA 4/29/95
If you are not familiar with the supergroup Mad Season, you should be. McCready absolutely goes off in his solo for “Wake Up,” heard here from the band’s show in Seattle in Apr. 1995. It may not be Pearl Jam, but it is still a treat to listen to.