Right before welcoming Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready onstage to hand him the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award from MusiCares, the charity that — among many other endeavors — supports musicians seeking access to addiction recovery resources, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan spoke effusively of watching his longtime friend.
“Whenever I see you playing the guitar,” he said, “I see the madness and beauty of an addict being set free.”
That sentiment from McKagan was a perfect summation of Thursday (May 10) night’s tribute to McCready, held at The Showbox in Seattle. An all-star affair featuring musical contributions from Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, and a bevy of local artists, the evening was a chance for some of the artists to not only praise the man of the hour but to also celebrate their own liberation from drug and alcohol addiction. And as many of them said during the lead up to the main event, it was McCready who helped them find that release.
Seattle-based singer/songwriter Star Anna said McCready was her second phone call after deciding to quit drinking. McKagan, too, said that his former high school pal was the person he knew he could lean on if “the big red exit sign” of temptation was in sight. Others marveled at how McCready’s already prodigious talent with a guitar only improved once he was free of his addiction to alcohol and drugs.
While those same feelings were expressed often onstage once the event got underway, the night primarily felt like a chance for all the artists to cut loose, indulging in spirited performances of favorite classic rock tunes, kicking off with a reunion of Raw Power, the Stooges tribute band McCready put together two years ago to play on the roof of Pike Place Market, and ending with a rousing version of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
Along the way, the revolving cast of musicians paid heed to the sounds and artists that have inspired McCready throughout his career. Wilson led the ensemble through sparkling takes on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” (a tune that allowed McCready to indulge in a particularly smoldering solo) and Heart’s “Even It Up.” The Rolling Stones got a pair of nods with Kim Virant, the bluesy vocalist who once fronted Seattle bar band Lazy Susan, taking the lead on “Dead Flowers” and Star Anna growling her way through “Sister Morphine.” McCready was joined early on by the members of Flight To Mars, his on-and-off tribute band that plays the music of British metal outfit UFO, for a three-song set that included a run through Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” for good measure.
The night was tempered with some measures of sorrow as well. In his acceptance speech, McCready spoke of the multiple losses that the Seattle music community has endured over the last 30 years with the deaths of Kurt Cobain, Mother Love Bone frontman Andy Wood, 7 Year Bitch co-founder Stefanie Sargent and his Temple of the Dog band mate Chris Cornell, all of whom battled with addiction. Even more poignant was when, earlier in the evening, McCready rang out the first chords of “River of Deceit,” a song from his band Mad Season, which featured vocalist Layne Staley, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2002. Sung by Star Anna last night, it felt like a moment of much-needed catharsis for the fans, friends, and family that packed the room.