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Mike McCready of Pearl Jam: 'We're still around after 25 years'

An interview with @MikeMcCreadyPJ of @PearlJam on the eve of the band's 2016 tour.

On Tuesday, April 5, Mike McCready celebrated his birthday. It was a big one, his 50th. This weekend, McCready's band Pearl Jam will open its North American tour in South Florida. It's a big one, too, as the tour marks 25 years since the Seattle group released its debut album, "Ten," and helped to usher in what may prove to be rock's last golden age.

These milestones, coupled with the fact that Pearl Jam is still on the road promoting its 10th studio album, 2013's "Lightning Bolt," may very well cross McCready's mind when the guitarist takes the stage April 8 at the BB&T Center in Sunrise and April 9 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. The shows will be Pearl Jam's first in South Florida since 2008, and their first in Florida since 2012, when the band played a festival in Pensacola, McCready's birthplace.

No one could blame McCready if he approached this tour as if it were a victory lap. After all, Pearl Jam is the only major band to have emerged from Seattle in the early 1990s to have not only survived, but to have never broken up, taken a hiatus or gone a year without at least playing a handful of shows. By year's end, Pearl Jam will be eligible for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For a rock band in the 21st century, these are not unremarkable accomplishments. But five days before the start of the tour, during a phone interview from his kid-noisy home in Seattle, McCready says he isn't thinking about any of it.

"It's more like I just want to remember the songs," the guitarist says. "It's more like I want to play the stuff the best that we can. Certainly, in terms of the nostalgia aspect, it's kind of amazing. You know, we're still around after 25 years and still playing music and happy to be doing so. I'm very grateful to still be around. But the truth is, in going on tour, I'm thinking of it more in business [terms]: 'What new songs — well, somewhat new songs — are we going to play? And what are people going to want to hear?' That kind of stuff."

As with tours by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and, once upon a time, the Grateful Dead, a Pearl Jam tour is the opposite of a manufactured, rehearsed-to-death production, with the set list changing from night to night, improvised interludes that wander into songs by bands as distinct as Sleater-Kinney and Pink Floyd, encores that can run as long as first acts, and songs that expand and evolve onstage so dramatically that their studio-recorded counterparts seem like mere suggestions. Still, what songs Pearl Jam performs at this weekend's shows, and, more important, the order in which they play them, will be given much thought, particularly by Eddie Vedder, the band's introspective but charismatic singer.

"Ed's very specific on knowing what we played in Florida the last time we were there," McCready says. "Every set list we've ever played he'll look over and go, 'We opened up with that in '96. We opened up with that in 2002.' All of those things are taken into consideration. … I think he frets about it a lot."

McCready, who formed his first band, Warrior, at 11, says that even after all this time, his primary concern onstage is getting the notes right. "I worry about my part," he says. "[Vedder's] overall vision of it is bigger, and he has to worry more about how he's going to sing, how the arc of the set is going to go, whether it's going to start slow or fast, how we can take the crowd on a journey. And my part is I want to be a part of the cog and contribute to that journey and also play the best I can.

"It's an intangible want," he continues. "There's a certain time when I'm playing guitar and not thinking about it and just looking up into the sky and just feeling pure emotion. It's kind of something that I can't put into words."

It wasn't always so easy for McCready to focus so intently on his playing, to lose himself in the music. There was, during the band's early years, the nightly worry that McCready was going to watch his singer accidentally kill himself during a show. Almost from the moment Vedder first walked on a stage with Pearl Jam, he was looking for ways to leave it. As documented in the 1992 video for the single "Even Flow," in which Vedder hurls himself into the audience from the second level of a theater in Seattle, and in Cameron Crowe's 2011 documentary "Pearl Jam Twenty," which finds the singer scaling trusses and leaping from scaffolds dozens of feet up, Vedder's Flying Wallendas act terrified his bandmates.

"There's a few specific ones that I really remember," McCready says. "When it was us and Nirvana and the Chili Peppers in San Diego [on Dec. 28, 1991], and he went up on this crazy girder, the lights were all red, and it was just oily, and it was a hundred feet up at the top of the building. … I could see him kind of struggling up there. And I thought, 'OK, this is it. He's f------ dead.'"

McCready says Vedder's acrobatics were driven in part by his fear that Pearl Jam would not make it to its fifth anniversary, let alone its 25th. "I had talked to Ed about it a few times," McCready recalls, "and he had explained he felt like, early on in our career, he didn't know how long this band was going to last, so he wanted to do something that was memorable. And I think he was into it, too. He was strong. He could climb up these crazy things. It made me nervous. It was a combination of nerves and excitement. I'm glad he's not doing that anymore."

Pearl Jam will perform 8 p.m. Friday, April 8, at the BB&T Center, 1 Panther Parkway, in Sunrise, and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at the AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Tickets cost $67. Go to PearlJam.com.

jcline@southflorida.com, Twitter.com/jakeflorida, Facebook.com/JakeCline

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