Pearl Jam’s Top Moments at New York City’s Madison Square Garden

By: Randy Sobel | September 10, 2022

Randy Sobel Shares the Band’s Best Moments at The Garden

It’s a building that goes by many names: MSG, The World’s Most Famous Arena, The Mecca of Sports and Entertainment. But if you’re a long-time New Yorker that’s seen a fair share of history happen there, you only know it by one name – The Garden.

I’ll preface this by saying that I grew up on Long Island, a Babylon line train ride away from Penn Station. So my opinion on this subject may have an exaggerated bias. Those of you that understand know where I’m going with this, and that this entire blog is basically gonna be me waxing poetic. So here it goes.

There is something special about that building from the moment you walk in. You can sense the rich history that’s happened there. Memorabilia of the dominant Knicks teams of the late 60s, the banners hanging from the rafters featuring Rangers legends such as Mark Messier and #11 Brian Leetch (6/25/2008 to get that reference), photos of every artist who’s ever graced the Garden stage and has called it an out of body experience. In the largest city in the US with the most passionate fans, there is no bigger stage imaginable. This is the type of place that any inspiring artist, athlete…hell, even politicians and religious authorities dream of stepping into this building and performing on that stage. There is a mystique from the minute you walk in, a sign that if you got this New York crowd rocking and singing at the top of your lungs, you’ve made it.

I told you I’d wax poetic on this, but my opinion is merely a cliché among the thousands of New Yorkers that have experienced the same. My first trip to the Garden actually wasn’t until I was 16. The Red Hot Chili Peppers stopped there on their By The Way tour, and since I didn’t have much experience taking the train with my friends, my mom appointed my brother and sister-in-law to essentially chaperone the concert. That was my take on it anyway, although I love going to see concerts with my brother, so I was more than okay with this. The experience was everything I previously mentioned. I’ve been in that building countless times, some for very special occasions, including the Rangers series-clinching win against the Montreal Canadiens to win the Eastern Conference Finals en route to the Stanley Cup in 2014. However, as amazing as that night was, I don’t think it could ever match the impact of a certain band that has put on some of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen live.

September 11 will be the sixth time I go and see my favorite band play in my favorite venue. That seems like a lot, but the things I missed in 1998 and 2003 are worthy of being my first destination spot if I ever have a time machine. The following essay is only featuring a select few of the dozens of major moments from MSG that have been ingrained in people’s memories. Some will be personal favorites, others will be obvious choices. But that’s because the band understands the significance of the moment every time they get the call. As Ed would exclaim at Pearl Jam’s first ever performance there – “…you ain’t shit until you play the Garden,” words so impactful that they are quoted (cleaned up of course) in the concourse of the arena.

Let’s do our best to try and pick five moments, but right off the bat you’ll see that’s not what we’re doing at all. In the famous words uttered by Ed, and away…we GO!

Honorable Mention:

10/16/1992 – Is Your Money That Good?

Although this technically isn’t the full band, I have to add this due to the significance of the experience and what it meant for the band moving forward. This night, of course, is the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary show featuring a who’s who of rock ‘n’ roll gods paying tribute to the most influential songwriter of our time. Ed and Mike, along with SNL band leader G.E. Smith on mandolin, performed Masters of War on this show. They were easily the youngest act on the bill that night. While Pearl Jam was marketed on Ten as being this young, hungry, up and coming band, I’m not sure if it was widely understood back then that every single band member was an elite level talent at their craft. This night was one for Ed to showcase that. While gracing the stage with his mild-mannered temperament, Ed reaches back almost effortlessly to give a stunning performance showcasing how truly powerful his voice is. It’s not even just in its power, it’s in the storytelling aspect of the performance, going in verse by verse slowly creeping up to where the big moment explodes. That voice soars gracefully throughout the Garden rafters and every single person takes notice. It goes from reserved to powerful to bitter anger in one full swing. In my humble semi-professional expert opinion, this is his single greatest vocal performance of all-time.

But strangely enough, that may not be the most important matter that came out of this show. As mentioned above about that night being a who’s who of legends, it was the first time they got to meet massive names such as George Harrison, Lou Reed, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan himself, and most importantly, Neil Young. While Ed received some sound advice from Dylan about how to deal with the media, it was Neil who saw the potential of this band and took them under his wing. Less than a month later they’d play the Bridge School benefit for the first time, and would go on to tour with him in 1993, and then later write a record with him. This event is responsible for the uncle-like influence that he’s had on them to this very day.

9/11/1998 – You Just Fucking Want More, and You Know What? You Deserve It.

“Well fuck you, we’re going to play it.” 1998 was Pearl Jam’s first two-night stint playing at the Garden, and just as is the theme for most of these moments, it’s curated by the fans. 1998 was a year prime for a resurgence of songs that hadn’t gotten much love from the band since the tours from the first two records. Due to the emergence of the Chicago Cab soundtrack, we saw the return of Hard To Imagine for the first time since 1994. Crazy Mary had reared its head back in for the first time since 1993 as a short tag in a handful of shows. This got fans to thinking about what else they’d like to see in this brand new era of Pearl Jam, now featuring Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron on drums.

With the girth of information provided by Five Horizons, a fan site that began the initial Concert Chronology that we are now continuing, fans were able to go through each tour’s setlists and see where and when certain things were played. This got people wondering why the popular track Breath from the Singles soundtrack hadn’t been played in over four years. In a three-night run, also including a show in East Rutherford, New Jersey, a fan campaign that was started by former Two Feet Thick writer Jessica Letkemann and a group of other passionate fans gave out signs that read BREATH in big, bold letters.

After some reluctance the first two nights, but acknowledgment in a performance of Elderly Woman where Ed emphasized the word ‘breath,’ it was all down to the last night to see if the band was up for the challenge. Coming back on for the encore and seeing all of the signs in front, Ed starts cursing out the crowd and finally gives in to their demands. It was pretty clear that this song had been unpracticed and it wouldn’t shock me if somebody had to run to the Virgin Megastore to pick up a copy of the Singles soundtrack, especially for Matt. But how the song sounded didn’t matter. It was the fact that the band recognized the fans’ desires and wanted to create a special moment for them to go home happy with. It’s something that still gets talked about to this day, and now that the band will be playing on the same stage on the date of its 24-year anniversary, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to recreate the scene from that night. Look out for me running around the city that day handing out signs!

Since that year, Breath has been played at one of each of the two-night visits every appearance except 2008. This show wasn’t all just about Breath, however. Ed climbing his microphone wire during Alive is a moment that will live on forever as well.

7/8/2003 – This Stage Is BOUNCING

Yet another instant classic Pearl Jam show that has long been immortalized by a popular DVD release entitled Live At The Garden. You can throw a dart at any song on this setlist, deem it the moment of the night and make a compelling argument about it. Here are a few as a small sample size:

  • Love Boat Captain opener, “…let the show begin”
  • In My Tree alternate version
  • I Am Mine’s dedication to the victims of 9/11
  • Wishlist’s ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ tag
  • Daughter featuring Ben Harper on the tag
  • A rare rendition of Crown Of Thorns for only the 4th time
  • Indifference featuring Ben Harper
  • Sonic Reducer featuring the Buzzcocks’ Tony Barber

Again, that is an extremely small sample size for all that went down on this night. People who have seen this show countless times remember the imagery. They remember the moments where Ed spoke to the crowd, where he compared Good Charlotte to “a popsicle that had been stuck up somebody’s ass.” But for the most part, they remember how great the New York City crowd was on this night, and how it all culminated within one performance that defines this show.

To end the first encore is Do The Evolution. While the crowd had been excellent this entire night, it was during this song that they were able to create the kind of moment that lives on forever. Before Stone’s signature solo on the song, you can see Ed lean down to the stage floor and feel it with his hand. There were vibrations emanating from the crowd’s intensity. They were so fired up that they made the concrete shake, anyone who was there that night can attest to that. As the song progresses and that intensity builds up to a fever pitch, Ed reacts to all of it right before the ‘hallelujah’ choir hits. “This stage is BOUNCING. Sing like a choir!” The band would leave the stage in order to take a much needed breather before the second encore, leading to Ed sharing this when he comes back on stage:

“Something happened just now, it’s easy for us to get freaked out because we want everything to be safe. But the stage was bumping up and down like [makes hand motion]. And I just want to tell you this because it’s a credit to you more than us, I was just told that it only bounced like that for three other people and they were The Grateful Dead, Iron Maiden [Mike shreds a second of “Number of the Beast”] and Bruce Springsteen, and we’re really proud to be a part of that crowd right now. Proud to be part of that group there, but I gotta tell ya, it scared the fuck out of us! Feel free to do it again.”

This moment may forever go down as the one that defines their history at MSG. Being up there in elite company with three legendary acts in terms of crowd insanity goes to prove that while the band lays out the foundation for a moment to be massive, it’s always the crowd that tips it over the edge. In every MSG show since, they have tried to replicate this type of moment, and in my estimation, it only happened one other time.

6/25/2008 – Release Me

This is where the list starts to get personal. Although there may be other moments that get more recognition from the 2008 shows, such as Ace Frehley joining for Black Diamond, CJ Ramone playing I Believe In Miracles, a trio of background singers helping out for songs like All Night, Who You Are, and W.M.A., and a few fun little fuck-ups along the way, since this is the first of what will hopefully be 28 shows in total after this September leg ends, I have to go back to where it all started for me. I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better situation in which to see my first show. It was local, at my favorite venue, and at a time where I felt comfortable with essentially the entire catalog enough where there wouldn’t be a lot of material that I didn’t know. I kind of had an understanding that the slow burn open was a thing, but not to a certain extent. I was so used to the customary thing with new albums being that a band usually opened with the biggest hit from the record, so I was assuming the show to begin with Life Wasted, perhaps with a Wasted Reprise intro. But in the first three seconds of the show, I learned one of the most valuable lessons about the band – almost nothing is customary. I felt it when they walked out, I kind of remember a dim blue lighting filling the stage and then the entire place just erupting. That’s when you get to let go of predictions and expectations and let those butterflies hit you. I knew that this moment would be the start of a very long and thrilling journey experiencing the band step up to the biggest of stages and do what they do best. Screams, whistles, wooos, claps, all of the right ingredients to welcome in the band for an epic 2 ½ hours of entertainment.

And then it happened…hearing the drone of Release fill the arena was in itself an experience unlike any other. Stone is known for a lot of his melodic riffs that feel like they can hypnotize you on the first note, and I’d be damned if I didn’t take the bait. I was following along with all of the cues; Ed summoning the audience with those little ‘ohhhhhhh’s’ at the beginning was like raising zombies from the dead. If you weren’t locked in to this, then you weren’t there. I gazed upon that stage in awe, and I remember the blue lighting turning purple, moving ever so slowly across the floor. Now, I have never been a proponent of organized religion, and until that point in my life I had never understood it. But being there for the first time and seeing everyone locked in to a song that I absolutely loved at that point, but one that I considered to be a sleeper off Ten, the entire crowd fell under the same hypnotic spell of Stone’s that I was under. At that moment, I didn’t know if I was having an out of body religious-type experience or whatever was happening, but I knew this: I was home.

I’ll never forget this moment, and although it seems cliche to say that the first song you heard is your all-time favorite, I can’t think of anything that would ever beat it. Outside of a combination of Brain Of J./Sad/Insignificance, which seems highly unlikely to ever happen, this will always stand alone at the top. A close second from this night is Mike’s “I wrote the song, but I fucked it up” bit from Marker In The Sand.

5/21/2010 – And Away…We Go…Skinning Cats

I’ve been to hundreds of shows in my life and I’d be damned if I remembered them all, but sometimes there are nights that are just a cut above the rest that you’ll never forget. This show was the absolute best I’ve ever witnessed of any band in any arena. It just so happened to be a combination of my two favorites. The first night of the two-night run was pretty good, I heard a lot of songs that I’ve haven’t heard since, such as You Are, Breakerfall, Insignificance, and Mankind. But boy oh boy, if you wanted a checklist type of show, you got it on this night. I’m Open, Push Me, Pull Me, Black Red Yellow, Sweet Lew, Hunger Strike, Rats. The goal of this show was to blow the roof off the joint, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that only a few years later the Garden had to be renovated. Pearl Jam causes wear and tear, as we all know.

Seeing as this is my all-time favorite show, it’s incredibly difficult to pick just one moment. So as the headline states, you’ll get two for the price of one. I have to go back to the way this show opened. This was a Friday night show in Manhattan and a night two show to boot, so everybody felt this edge of anticipation that something big was bound to happen. And before Ed plucked those iconic opening notes to Corduroy, he said something so simple, yet incredibly impactful…

And away…we go!

For all of you Live On 4 Legs listeners, you’re all aware of my love with this line. It’s literally the first line of our podcast’s theme song. And it sets the tone perfectly for both the pod and this massive night. This was just about as close to a recreation of the Do The Evolution moment that you’re ever gonna get. The stage was ROCKIN’! You could feel a palpable kind of energy in that room that I don’t think could’ve properly been transmitted through any other song at any other time. There’s one point in the bridge where the building is so loud, everyone clapping hands and screaming, that when they rev back into the solo you can hear Ed say “I can feel it!” The place fully exploded, and I’ve never seen a better rock ‘n’ roll moment in my entire life.

And while that may be number 1 for me, I can’t just cut out there without talking about Slow Lukin, the universally beloved moment from that night. At night 1, they brought out a string quartet to help with some of the backing on Backspacer songs Just Breathe and The End. They also threw Lukin in there as an added bonus. Ed said something about trying this real quick in the back, and proceeded to play the song acoustically at full speed with the string section doing their best to follow along. The next night, they came out with a different game plan, and Ed compares it to some kind of weird adage:

You know they say that thing, there’s many ways to skin a cat. Like everyone knows that saying, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Why does everybody know that saying? Who the fuck is out skinning cats? Is that an old thing we used to do as Americans? Cat skinning? But I guess this is another way to skin a cat.

What followed was the most beautifully heartfelt version of the song about Matt Lukin’s kitchen that has ever been done. A lot of the crowd was very confused when they heard these pretty normal non-power chords start the song along with the quartet. I wasn’t fooled. It’s not like I shouted it, but the minute Ed said the thing about cat skinning, I had a feeling they were gonna somehow rework Lukin from the night before. Once the crowd recognized what it was, the place erupted. It quickly made the rounds on the Ten Club forums and other early social media outlets, and I think for the average fan who wasn’t there, it’s this moment that connects to this show the most. Let’s not forget how powerful that version of Better Man was too, because that’s clearly yet another moment deserving of praise. Slow Lukin is just one of those legendary things that can be imitated (they did a Slow Lukin intro at Denver 2014 and Budapest from this year) but never replicated.

As a postscript, I went to this show with my brother who is more of a casual fan. I hate bringing this up with him because for some reason he has very little memory of being there, and I have no idea how that’s humanly possible.

5/2/2016 – The Dream Police

The goal here was to use at least one moment from every year that they’ve stopped there on tour. However, to me the 2016 shows have always felt a little lackluster. Not that they don’t have big moments (we’ll get to them in a sec), but in retrospect it was doomed to fail after Philadelphia got the doors blown off days prior when they went front to back with Ten. Surely, in my New York state of mind, I thought that there would be no chance that Philadelphia would ever end up with something better than the Garden, but the Phillies have to beat the Mets some time, right? (Answer: no they don’t)

Everyone seems to prefer night 1 of this run, and I kind of don’t disagree, but there is a bit of a sourpuss face that I put on when calling back to that one. That was my 15th show, and by that point, all I was looking for was the stuff that I had never seen live before. Out of the 35 songs played that night, there was only one that I hadn’t heard previously, and that’s because no one had. It’s a random, partial, OTOTO cover of the Doobie Brothers’ song “Takin’ It To The Streets.” While there were other cool things in this show that transpired – the album intro to Go, mid-set Release, and a good set of fan favorite deep cuts such as I Got Shit, In Hiding, and Off He Goes, I still scoff at this one because I am a serious collector at heart. However, my expectations and personal goals for shows have been altered since then.

The second night was a little bit different. We were treated to some nice little gems in there such as the Man Trilogy and back-to-back performances of Breath and State Of Love And Trust off of Singles. Also, this time I was actually able to add a nice deep cut into the collection, All Or None, but none of those are considered to be the big eye-opening moments, thanks to two guest appearances. At the beginning of the show, Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson were invited onto the stage for the first time since the 2014 Milwaukee show, but this time they’d be playing one of their own songs. The band busted out Cheap Trick’s staple song, Surrender, causing fanboy Mike McCready to have conniptions on stage. This was a good tablesetter guest spot before a much more surprising one would appear much later.

For the first time in 171 shows, they broke out the Police song Driven To Tears. You have to go back to 2003 to find a time when they would bring this one up a bit more regularly, but the song debuted all the way back in 1992 in Stockholm, Sweden, and can be traced as one of the very first that Ed played guitar on live. It had been since 2009 that they’d last played it, and it’s always been considered a cover that’s sneakily good, but perhaps forgotten about a little bit. That isn’t an issue here, as out of nowhere in the middle of the song, there’s Sting. No introduction, but the Garden faithful caught on to it right away. He belted out his part as if he weren’t in his mid-60s, and then walked off stage. Ed showered him with love and admiration, calling him his favorite singer, bass player, activist, and humanist.

In case you were wondering how high we set those expectations from these shows, night two happened to be on the 10-year anniversary of the self-titled record release, more famously known as Avocado. We thought that a full album, after Ten and Vs. were played that tour, was a lock, but we did not hear a single song from that record at either show.

Second Honorable Mention:

11/7/2016 – Temple of the Dog

So it was never my intention to add a second honorable mention to this list, but as I kept writing and thinking about things, I couldn’t get this one out of my head for a multitude of reasons. I remember at first not being too interested in attending this. They only have ten songs, what the hell else are they gonna play? At some point I had convinced myself that it was a good idea to go, there was no telling if this was going to be a one-off thing or not. They didn’t have too many dates planned, so if I missed my chance at MSG, it was likely that I’d miss this tour altogether. I sit here right now with zero regrets for making this decision.

In retrospect, this show is a bit ominous for a few reasons. The obvious one is that this would be the final time I’d see Chris Cornell live before his passing the following May. When I woke up to the news, there were so many thoughts that circulated in my head. A lot were just asking the question ‘why’ over and over again, but then I also thought of my own concert regrets. It was less about being selfish and more about being able to want to support the artists that I love and do what they do best. I never got to see Soundgarden live, and that’s a pretty big regret looking back. This past year I had tickets to go see the Foo Fighters for the first time since 2006, and that one stung just as hard too. I’m just thankful for changing my mind on Temple, because I could be here talking about another massive regret right now.

The other thing I took out of this show was where it fell on the calendar. November 7, 2016. That date may not mean anything when you first think about it, but it happened to be the final day that the people of this country wouldn’t ever have to use the word President in front of the name Trump. There was no discussion about it during the Temple set, nor did I expect there to be. The opening act, Fantastic Negrito, made mention of it in his set. It was strange to go from an extreme high on that night to an absolute extreme low the next one. The whole timeline will probably stick in my head until I’ve aged enough to forget it.

I can’t end this on such a negative note, so if I had to pick an actual moment from that show that I loved, I think it might be River Of Deceit. As mentioned early in the night, it was going to be a set that celebrated their influences and peers at the time of writing the album. It’s one of the most vulnerable songs that was somehow presented as a redemptive singalong on this night. Of course, some love needs to be handed to their cover of Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand,” as well as War Pigs.

Well, I don’t think I quite got to every special moment from the Garden, but I think I could’ve literally done a top 50 and missed something important. Your thoughts? What’s your favorite MSG moments from the ten shows they’ve played?


Randy Sobel

Concertpedia Managing Editor & LO4L Host

The first time I heard Yield, I didn’t know it at the time but it changed my life. 10 years later, I saw Pearl Jam for the first time at Madison Square Garden and haven’t looked back. I’m still holding out hope that W.M.A. will one day be played as a full song more consistently in setlists rather than just as a tag off of Daughter, and you won’t ever find a bigger homer for the band’s Hartford shows than me. Top 10 Pearl Jam crowd, fight me on it!

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