For the past 21 years, Mike McCready has provided the flair to Pearl Jam's sound. Blending elements of classic rock, blues and metal, McCready is responsible for two of Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos (Pearl Jam classics “Alive” and “Yellow Ledbetter”), while Rolling Stone named him and fellow riffmeister Stone Gossard to its list of Top 20 New Guitar Gods.
In 2003, McCready and a few friends formed Flight to Mars, a tribute to '70s hard rockers UFO. Having been a fan of UFO since his days in his first outfit, Shadow, it made sense to honor the British quartet. “We all loved UFO growing up here in Seattle,” McCready says. “I gravitated toward [lead guitarist] Michael Schenker, who I thought was a killer player.”
Each year, Flight to Mars raise cash and awareness for Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). At 21, McCready was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, an intestinal condition that causes abdominal pain, diarrhea (which may be bloody if inflammation is at its worst), vomiting (which can be continuous) and weight loss. One of the most frustrating aspects of Crohn's is that it's impossible to predict embarrassing flare-ups, which is one of the reasons the guitarist didn't go public with his condition until 2002.
For the past decade, the 46-year-old McCready, the only person who has been on the cover of both Rolling Stone and Crohn's Advocate, has embraced being the famous face of the disease. He's active in the northwest chapter of the CCFA, donating both time and funds to the nonprofit foundation, which provides education to millions who suffer from the ailments and has raised more than $150 million for Crohn's and colitis research.
With the Seattle gigs selling out for the past nine years, McCready decided to honor the band's 10-year anniversary by embarking on their first tour.
“The goal is for this tour to raise some awareness for Crohn's and colitis,” he says. “Lots of times, people don't realize they have it or why they have pain. Twenty-five years ago, people weren't talking about it.”
Performing on the West Coast in smaller venues such as the Observatory in Santa Ana and the Troubadour in Los Angeles allows McCready to introduce Flight to Mars to new audiences while also giving Pearl Jam fans the opportunity to see him in an intimate setting. While you shouldn't expect the group to play Pearl Jam songs, that doesn't mean he won't invite some of his famous friends to jam with the group, especially in Southern California. “I have a lot of friends here, so there will be a few surprises,” he says.
McCready says he is surprised but not shocked that the project, which started out as a few friends jamming together, is going strong. The idea of eventually recording a proper UFO tribute album has been kicked around, which McCready hasn't ruled out, but for now, the only way for fans outside Seattle to see the band is to check them out on this upcoming tour.
Looking back, McCready says, none of this would have happened without the support of his wife, Ashley.
“She pushed me to start talking about it, and we looked for an organization that [deals] with Crohn's,” he says. “I've found that it's been incredibly healing to meet and talk to people who have this. I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I can be proactive and solution-oriented.”
With Pearl Jam heading to Europe this summer and, at latest word, with two southeastern festival dates slated for the U.S. (in addition to the band's other members working on solo or other projects), the timing couldn't have worked out better for a Flight to Mars tour.
“Be ready for a great '70s rock show,” he says. “It's going to be fun. There's going to be good energy, so come out and don't be afraid to enjoy yourself.”
Flight to Mars perform tonight at Constellation Room at the Observatory in Santa Ana.