Several moons have passed since Monster Mike Welch first took the greater Boston area by storm – quickly followed by the rest of the free world – with his amazing guitar playing as a pre-teenager.
Fact is, Welch has now been playing the blues in the public arena for over 25 years.
But before blues lovers start to think of Welch as a jaded and stodgy curmudgeon (at a stately 37 years of age, no less!), they should get a load of the way he gushes with youthful energy and an almost unbridled enthusiasm when discussing the latest project to make its way onto his always-full plate.
“There’s a lot of things going into 2017 that I’m really excited about. Towards the end of this year (2016) I made a record with Michael Ledbetter, which should come out in the spring of next year,” he said. “Right now, the exciting thing is the record we just made. We played the Chicago Blues Festival together as part of the Otis Rush tribute and it was just such a natural fit, that instead of waiting for our schedules to clear up, I said, ‘OK. That’s it. We’re going in and making a record together.”
No doubt most blues fans are instantly familiar with Michael Ledbetter, but for those who may not be up to speed – he’s been the golden-voiced singer, rhythm guitarist and front man for the Nick Moss Band for close to a decade now. Ledbetter (who is also a distant relative of the one-and-only Huddie William ‘Ledbelly’ Ledbetter) is an amazingly-gifted singer and it’s no surprise that Welch is as pumped-up as he is for the work the two recently completed in the studio. Come next spring, the world will find out just how Welch and Ledbetter go together better than peanut butter and jelly.
“He’s so great and is such a good guy. He and I just had this instant, intense connection. I’m an OK singer and can get by, but if I were a great singer, I’d sing like Mike Ledbetter,” Welch said.
For the past 15 years or so, Welch – who was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the Instrumentalist – Guitar category this past spring – has been logging a ton of road miles as the guitarist for Sugar Ray & The Bluetones (Sugar Ray Norcia – vocals and harp; Welch – guitar; Anthony Geraci – piano; Michael Mudcat Ward – bass; Neil Gouvin – drums). The venerable group’s latest album, Seeing is Believing (Severn Records), hit the streets in early October.
“One of the things that makes The Bluetones what they are is that it’s a band that’s playing the blues as a five-way conversation on stage. It could be just little nuances, but the music is constantly shifting to where we’re all playing and reacting to each other. That means we end up supporting each other in a way that is not necessarily unique, but it is pretty finely-tuned for as long as the band’s been together,” said Welch. “That’s something that I’ve learned from those guys that I bring into every other situation that I play in. That to me, it is a big part of what makes this music interesting. It’s the constantly shifting interaction that gives it life and makes it interesting for people to listen to. I think a lot of people may not realize why they’re reacting to it, but they still do react to it. And I think that a lot of what people in the audience hear and how they react to what they hear, starts with the musicians on stage listening to each other.”
That interplay and ‘five-way conversation’ that helps set Sugar Ray & The Bluetones apart on the bandstand is also key to the way that the group ends up crafting songs when they close the studio door behind them and the red light goes on for a recording session.
“It (the way they create new material) has a lot to do with how long the band’s been together. When one of us brings in a song, we kind of know how the other musicians are going to react. We might have little discussions about this part or that part, but I’ll put it this way … I’ve been in and out of this band for about 16 years almost and I think I’ve been a part of maybe four rehearsals during that time,” he laughed. “There’s a certain amount of telepathy and there’s a certain amount of just relying on knowing what the other person is going to do.”
Just by looking at all the different projects that Welch always seems to be juggling, whether playing in The Bluetones or with The Knickerbocker All-Stars or on an Igor Prado Band record or with Anthony Geraci’s Boston Blues All-Stars, the man doesn’t seem to take many days off. However, he also says that just looking at his schedule can sometimes be a bit deceiving, as well.
“It can be (challenging to balance all that he’s got going on) and with the Ledbetter record coming out next year, there’s going to be even more of that. But the other thing about this business is, yes I appear to be busy, and there’s some months that I have so much to do that I don’t know what to do with myself and then there’s some months where I’m sitting at home, twiddling my thumbs,” he said. “The bottom line is that when someone that I love and respect asks me to go and play some music, my response is never ‘no,’ it’s ‘how do I make this work?’ And that can be difficult, especially when you have three things to do in a month and they all fall on the same date. And then you’ll have nothing that wants to happen in the two weeks on either side of that. That can definitely make it a balancing act.”
In addition to his top-notch guitar playing, another facet of Welch that makes him such an in-demand musician is his ability to tailor his talents to whatever the current situation calls for. While some guitarists can do what they do, and not much else, Welch has proven time-after-time that he can almost be like a chameleon and immediately fit right in on the bandstand or in the studio with whoever he’s playing with on any given day.
“I think it helps that I’m a fan of a lot of different kinds of music. If I’m playing with someone who has more of a blues-rock thing going, well, I grew up on The Stones, Clapton and Hendrix. And for someone that’s playing more of a traditional blues thing, that’s what I’ve been concentrating on for so much of my career,” he said. “I genuinely love a wide range of blues-based music and I think that comes through in my playing, anyway. Having love for all of this music makes it easier for me to fit into different situations. Another thing that was instilled in me early on was the value of playing with your ears. Every decision I make on stage is based on what the singer is doing and what the rhythm section is doing … I’m a very reactive player. Even when I’m soloing or doing my own thing, I’m constantly reacting to what everyone else is doing on the stage. That makes it easier to play with people that I may not have played with before, because my ears are wide open and I’m trying to complement what they’re trying to do.”
To call Welch a well-versed conversationalist on guitar would be a whale of an understatement. Simply put, the dude can flat-out wail on the instrument. Much more than just speed or volume, however, Welch has a deft touch that at times gives way to all his early influences – from Keith Richards and John Lennon to Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. And while he’s been able to craft a seemingly-natural ability to channel a good deal of the jazz/swing feeling that’s long been a hallmark of the east coast blues scene, Welch says that style may not have been in his original guitar-playing wheelhouse.
“I really don’t think of having that swing or jump-blues thing in my playing. I’ve had to develop that because of some of the people that I’ve played with,” he said. “I mean, there’s some T-Bone Walker in there … that stuff is there, but for me, my guys were always B.B. King and Magic Sam and Otis Rush. And of course there’s Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddie King and guys like that. But I always gravitated towards the Chicago kind of thing, especially early on. But there is that element (swing and jump) in The Bluetones, just because of the sound of Ray’s voice. But as a guitar player, I don’t feel that’s where I naturally gravitate towards. If anything, I feel that my take on that kind of jump-blues has more of a B.B. King-kind of phrasing in it than it does T-Bone Walker.”
Even though the blues wasn’t born in the Northeast corridor of the United States, Boston – along with the whole east coast – has nevertheless always had a vibrant and highly-energized blues scene and is responsible for launching the careers of scores of blues men and women over the years.
“The thing about the east coast scene is, that for a while, it felt fairly insular. For instance, people from the west coast, or from the south or from Chicago maybe did a better job at getting results from playing on the road for people. But I feel it’s still a very healthy scene and does have some deep roots. In Boston, it’s a scene that really stretches back to the early ’60s folk revival,” Welch said. “There are a lot of groups and a lot of musicians here that know exactly where they come from. The thing about it is, it’s not one of the areas that originated it, you know? It’s an area that learned this music from recordings and then from visiting musicians. There’s some impact there, it’s different than if the roots stretched back to the originators. But these days, as far as younger musicians go, we live in such an information age – and a lot of the originators aren’t around anymore – that I feel that regional differences still happen, but they’re not nearly as pronounced as they were when I started in the ’90s. I mean, you don’t have to live in the same area as someone to watch full shows they might play, thanks to YouTube.”
Welch started leaving his personal mark on the Boston blues way back in 1992 when he was a tender 13-years-old. That was the year that he played at the grand opening of the very first House of Blues club in Cambridge, Mass. It was also on that fateful night that the ‘Monster’ was first placed in front of Mike Welch.
“The host band that night was the Blues Brothers Band with Dan Aykroyd as the host and emcee. He was the one that gave me the nickname, Monster Mike. When you’re 13 and have never been in the paper in any way and then it says something about Dan Aykroyd giving you your nickname … you know, I feel like I was stuck with that. It’s funny but I went through an ‘artist formally known as’ stage when I was about 18 or 19 years old. I was like, ‘That’s (Monster Mike) not my name.’ It was the woman who eventually became my wife that told me – when I was dating her – ‘Every time I say I’m dating a guitar player named Mike Welch, they go, ‘Monster Mike Welch?’ So it was like, ‘Maybe if you want to keep getting called for gigs, you should be OK with being called Monster Mike Welch,'” he laughed. “So I gave into her wisdom on that one. But it’s interesting now that I’m older. I’m very grateful for that connection with Aykroyd and the House of Blues and what it did for me, the way it set me up for the career that I eventually had. I did feel differently about it when I was 18 or 19 as to the way I feel about it now.”
Despite any nicknames that was ever thrown his way, even back when he was a teen-aged guitar playing Phenom around Boston, Welch – who nabbed the 1995 Boston Music Award for Best Blues Act – had little doubt that one day he would carve out a living for himself by playing the blues.
“At the time, I was like, what else can I possibly do, you know? It didn’t seem unrealistic to me back then (playing guitar for a living). It seems fairly realistic now … but I assumed that I was in it for life (back then),” he said. “The blessing is that I’ve actually been able to do that, as reality creeps in. I’m very grateful for everything that I went through back in those early days, because I was able to make some connections that honestly, if I’d had the same level of talent but had been a little bit older, I wouldn’t have had those connections.”
His age back then was kind of like a double-edged sword for Welch. On the one hand, it did draw him some attention that he may not otherwise have had, but on the other hand, some people were simply content to just think of him as some kind of a novelty act – or flash-in-the-pan – because of his young age.
“I struggled with that all the time. It was something that I tried to avoid. I tried not to play up to anything that could be seen as being a novelty act. I definitely didn’t want to be dismissed as such. I think it’s a large part of the reason why my early records are all original songs,” he said. “It wasn’t because I didn’t want to record versions of some of my favorite (cover) songs, it was because I felt like I needed to give people something that wasn’t as simple as guitar acrobatics from a novelty act. But none of my favorite music was guitar acrobatics from novelty acts, anyway. I think some of my decisions (back then) were compensation for not wanting to be seen as immature or shallow … even though there were a few things were I was immature and shallow. But I was certainly conscious of all that back then.”
It was when he was around 7 years old that Welch first started showing a real interest in playing a musical instrument.
“Yeah, when I was about 7, I had an older cousin that was about 13 and he played Beatles songs on guitar and I thought that was the absolute coolest thing I’d ever seen. It’s funny, but in some ways I feel that my progression through this music – even though it happened 25 years later – was almost like someone who saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and then worked their way backwards,” he said. “I got into The Beatles first and then The Stones, Clapton, Hendrix and then from there went back into the blues stuff. The thing about The Beatles is, it’s music that is melodic and is clever in emotional impact and those are things that make it appealing to kids. The thing that I responded to about The Beatles, even early on, was John Lennon’s voice – that edge he had to his voice. I feel like that was the first place that I heard what I would later be looking for in the blues. That kind of set me off on the path of looking for something that made me feel that way.”
Welch’s first three albums (These Blues Are Mine (1996); Axe To Grind (’97) and Catch Me (’98)) were cut for Tone Cool Records – a label that basically started out in the basement of founder Richard ‘Rosy’ Rosenblatt back in 1985.
“Yeah, he’s (Rosenblatt) local to here (Boston) and I knew him as a harmonica player and I also knew he had a label. And as I was building up my own thing, it was fairly natural that I made my first records for Tone Cool. It was not only because of his proximity, but also because he was really doing great work for the Boston-area arts,” said Welch. “You had Toni Lynn Washington and Paul Rishell and of course right after my record came out, you had Susan Tedeschi. So that was a very natural fit and I made three records for him, which were three records that set me up for what I’m doing now. For me, those three records (on Tone Cool) are kind of hard for me to listen to. For me, it’s like looking at my high school yearbook, you know?”
Even though Welch has been playing the blues professionally for over two-and-a-half decades at this point in time, by traditional bluesman standards, he’s still a young pup at under 40 years of age. Understandably, he has no intentions or plans to change course or swim in a different direction any time soon … especially because of the potential that exists for his newly-forged collaboration with Michael Ledbetter.
“The whole reason I did this (started play music as a young man) in the first place was because of the emotional expression. Even when the emotions being expressed were immature, at least I was still expressing something,” he said. “The thing that I’m the most excited about is the project that I did with Michael Ledbetter. He’s still going to be doing shows with the Nick Moss Band and I’m still going to be doing shows with Sugar Ray & The Bluetones, but we’re definitely talking about going out and playing together. We had Laura Chavez as a special guest on the record and we want to make sure she’s included, too. She’s just so great. My whole reason for doing everything that I do is to play with people like that.”
Visit Monster Mike’s website at: http://monstermikewelch.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.