Photo: Matt Hayward/WireImage.com
Seattle Celebrates Mike McCready At MusiCares Concert For Recovery
Old Seattle — that segment of the city's population that remembers when McCready's first band Shadow played the Skate King across Lake Washington in the 1980s — was there to share its longstanding affection for this likable local, a musical prodigy who became one of the preeminent guitarists of modern rock and, later, a model of recovery and sobriety. New Seattle was represented by a sizable cohort from Amazon Music, the company that has recently remade the landscape of the city and served as title sponsor.
If there's any middle ground to be found among these factions (which, to be fair, share more than a few members) it's in music. Fortunately, at MusiCares' 2018 Concert for Recovery, there was plenty to go around.
Once he was introduced at the start of the evening, the 53-year-old McCready remained on the Showbox stage almost the entire night; his guitar, aggressive but steady, was the common thread as more than a dozen musical guests cycled on and off around him.
First up were his longstanding friends Mark Arm and Duff McKagan, the former singer for grunge forefathers Mudhoney, the latter an early Seattle-rock mainstay before he moved to L.A. and played bass in Guns N' Roses. Arm is a spiritual descendent of Iggy Pop and he prodded the group, which also included Seattle master drummer Barrett Martin and veteran guitarist Danny Newcomb, through Stooges tunes "Search And Destroy" and "TV Eye," all but antagonizing the front row of the seated crowd.
Next, members of Flight To Mars, a McCready side project honoring '70s classic rock band UFO, appeared onstage. Singer Paul Passarelli, sporting an imposing grey goatee and leather-fringed jacket, tore through Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song" as McCready and Tim DiJulio interwove their lead lines in true Thin Lizzy-style "guitarmony." Flight To Mars then rumbled through covers of "Lights Out" and "Love To Love" by UFO, an unsung favorite band of McCready's. The latter song, a massive power ballad, brought out a roaring solo from McCready and a huge response from the crowd.
The band exited and the show paused for an extended interlude to extol the night's honoree. It began with a prerecorded video message from Thunderpussy, a young Seattle rock quartet that's one of McCready’s current protégés, who affectionately dubbed him "the fifth Pussy." A couple of auction items — a Les Paul signed by Pearl Jam and a guitar strap that belonged to Chris Cornell — ended up fetching upward of $30,000 for MusiCares.
MusiCares Chairman Michael McDonald spoke about his own road to recovery and McCready's role in it: "He's a hero of mine who's helped hundreds of people, many of whom he's never met." Over the years, McDonald shared that MusiCares has supplied more than $10 million in services to more than 3,000 clients.
At that point, Joel McHale, the Seattle-raised comedian and actor, traipsed onstage. Subjected to a delayed flight, he'd only just arrived at the venue to begin his hosting duties. "They dropped me off at the Phoenix Underground," he told the crowd, referencing a long-defunct Seattle nightclub.
Now a different set of musicians returned to the stage, including Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, Heart singer/guitarist Nancy Wilson and old-school Seattle vocalist Kim Virant. This expanded group dug into a loose, jangly version of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers," with Wilson and Virant singing simultaneously into the same mic.
McCready introduced Star Anna, a young Seattle musician he's been mentoring for years, and she led the band through "River Of Deceit," a song by Mad Season, another McCready side project from the '90s that featured Alice In Chains' Layne Staley. Anna's voice was low, guttural — the sound of someone once wounded and now stronger for having healed. It was especially poignant on their cover of the Stones' "Sister Morphine" she performed backed only by acoustic and slide guitars.
Anna thanked McCready profusely for the help he'd given her during her own path to recovery. "He was the second person I called when I decided to quit," she recalled. "If sobriety can look like that, it's not so bad."
Then came the moment that was the night's first peak: eight musicians onstage, now including Ryan Waters, the Seattle-based former tour guitarist for Prince, plus Wilson, Anna, and members of Flight To Mars, performing Pink Floyd's dramatic "Comfortably Numb."
After the song, McKagan returned to the stage to present McCready's award. ("He's the only person here who could get away with wearing a vest and no shirt," McHale joked.) He told the audience he's known McCready for 40 years, "through drugs and alcohol and Crohn's."
"You're insane onstage,” McKagan said. "Your guitar portrays the madness and beauty of an addict being set free."
Welcomed with a hometown standing ovation, McCready was clearly humbled by the audience's sincere response and the gravity of the occasion. He began an improvised acceptance speech by naming members of the Seattle music community who weren't there — "Kurt, Layne, Andy, Chris" — all friends who suffered from their own problems with addiction and never got the help McCready himself did.
He thanked his Pearl Jam bandmates — "I know you guys probably went home but thanks for putting up with me" — and then told a story about taking LSD and seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan, the namesake of his award. "I don't want to say that's a good idea," he said, apologizing to his parents in the audience, "but something changed that night because of that and because of the music."
It was a great honor to receive the Stevie Ray Vaughn Award last night and humbled and grateful that @MusiCares chose me. They do exceptional work in helping musicians get the help they need and they do it effectively and efficiently. Thank you MusiCares for existing. https://t.co/oacRu4aX5V
— Mike McCready (@MikeMcCreadyPJ) May 11, 2018
McCready clearly wanted to get back to the music. His speechifying done, he brought out Flight To Mars and Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, and their version of "Surrender" was the second highlight of the night — a timeless teenage anthem sung by parents of teenagers.
Mike Ness of Social Distortion emerged with a bouquet of roses for McCready. "I got these as a symbol of recovery, because instead of bringing them to a funeral I get to give these to him live," he told the crowd before playing a swaggery version of "Ball And Chain" and a rollicking "Don't Drag Me Down" that finally got the crowd out of their seats and dancing. The quartet of Ness, McCready, McKagan, and Smith locked into the punkish momentum for the tightest of the entire night.
Now the crowd was up and involved, and McCready took advantage, asking for full participation in the final song. With the entire ensemble onstage now, some 12 musicians strong, they dove deep into Neil Young's "Helpless," a song of recovery if there ever was one.
McCready leapt into the audience to lead the singalong while the band played on, then climbed back onstage and joined the group to close the song. Spanning the entire width of the stage, the crowd basked in a well-deserved ovation. It was an appropriately heartfelt way to end a night of mutual appreciation and gratitude — a night that brought out the best of Seattle, old and new.
(Jonathan Zwickel lives and writes in Seattle. He's senior editor of City Arts Magazine, contributes to Pitchfork, Thrillist and Stereogum and recently published his first book, Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography, on Greenwood Press. )