Featured Interview – Monster Mike Welch

imageIf anyone’s got the right to have a bad case of the blues in 2020, Monster Mike Welch definitely qualifies. The roller coaster ride the guitarist has been on had already taken him to the pinnacle of success through his partnership with Mike Ledbetter to the depths of despair when the melismatic vocalist died suddenly just days before they were set to reap the rewards of their well-earned success.

Things would have been bad enough if they’d simply been bandmates in the Welch Ledbetter Connection. But they were far more than that, and far more than friends. They’d grown so close on and off stage that they’d become something akin to being two parts of a single entity.

Friends and fans inundated Welch with love, condolences and support when he played as planned aboard the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, a gig that was unbelievably difficult to attempt considering the sailing took place just a week and a half after Ledbetter’s passing. Sure, two of the most talented voices in the music — Curtis Salgado and Kilborn Alley Blues Band front man Andrew Duncanson – stood steadfastly at his side and filled Ledbetter’s role on stage, but no one could replace him in Welch’s heart.

For Monster Mike, some comfort came in the months that followed as he crisscrossed the country and put on as brave a face as he could when appearing at the multitude of benefits in to support for Ledbetter’s young family: devoted partner Kathy, look-alike daughter Holland and son Michael, who was about to celebrate his first birthday when tragedy struck.

Like the cruise, the Blues Music Awards that followed was an equally overwhelmingly and bittersweet affair that delivered a modicum of solace as the Welch Ledbetter Connection took home trophies in all four categories they received nominations.

As the benefits ebbed and summer turned into fall, Mike was at home in Massachusetts with his own wife and child as the true weight of everything he’d lost finally started to become a grim reality. As winter approached, he was dealing a serious, unrelenting case of depression — something that, he freely admits, he’s been dealing with for most of his life.

Mike started to bounce back again after the first of the year. He was starting to make new plans and setting new goals. But the roller coaster plunged again as the coronavirus pandemic turned the world of the deep-thinking, soft-spoken family man and the world of everyone around him upside down again.

But fear not! As Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, Monster Mike has become well-centered and amazingly upbeat despite all of the obstacles thrown in his path.

“We’re still in a lockdown… in a two-family house with my mom and dad…and my mantra is: ‘Do not murder Mom!’” he says with a chuckle and a heaping helping of sincerity. A former child protégé, Mike was born on June 11, 1979, and has lived in Boston his entire life despite previous, persistent claims that he came into the world in Texas.

“My Wikipedia page (now corrected) said I was born in Austin – something that might have been picked up from one of those encyclopedias of the blues in the ‘90s that had me born there, which is not true.”

Some of the confusion could have stemmed for what Mike terms a “weird New England-Austin crosspollination.” At one point, he notes, the Fabulous Thunderbirds were based there, and all of their members save for Californian Kim Wilson — Fran Christina, Duke Robillard, Preston Hubbard and Kid Bangham – were natives of Rhode Island 50 or so miles away.

The local music scene benefited from the early ‘60s folk scene that brought first-generation bluesmen to Newport and Boston, and then the blues revival of the early ‘70s that gave birth to Roomful of Blues, who were bringing in Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Jimmy Witherspoon and others to play, and Monster Mike’s future bandmate, Sugar Ray Norcia, who was bringing Big Walter Horton east from Chicago.

“The people I grew up around… (keyboard player) David Maxwell was a product of both of those things,” Welch is quick to point out. And when Sugar Ray gets into Big Walter mode, it’s pretty frightening. You get a couple of drinks in him, he starts going full Big Walter. Folks don’t realize how deeply raw he is at his core.”

A BMA nominee for guitarist of the each of the past five years and a man who literally grew up as a 25-year member of Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, Mike spent his childhood immersed in his father’s LPs. He started playing guitar at age eight after becoming fascinated by a 13-year-old cousin who entertained family members by playing Beatles tunes on the six-string.

image“My dad was a fan,” he says. “He had one of those ‘60s record collections…Dylan, Beatles, Stones, Clapton, Hendrix. At one point, before I was born, someone broke in and stole all of his blues records. But there were still a few in there. But I was always the kind of kid obsessively read about things when they I got into them.”

Mike’s path to the blues was made clearer because of Eric Clapton, he says, noting: “One of the things about Clapton is that he’s really good about crediting his sources. I remember one interview in a guitar magazine in particular, which is the first time I really heard about Freddie King, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, Ray Charles and Little Walter.

“I’d read all these names, and I’d be: ‘Okay…that must be the source.’

“I was a confused little kid with burgeoning mental health problems,” he chuckles. “There was something about the blues that was so direct that it felt like: ‘Oh, this must be the answer… This must be how you make things make sense.

“The first thing I heard that triggered that sensation in me – the first thing that had that edge that made me want to know more — was John Lennon’s voice. I was always kinda searching out that feeling. And then, when I heard the blues…it was a whole genre that was dependent on that.

“That’s the core tenet: To make you feel something without a lot of window dressing.”

Influenced early by Albert King, Welch’s six-string skills started showing such promise that, by the time he was 11 years old, his parents were already taking him to blues shows and jams, earning early acclaim. Both Ronnie Earl and Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, a longtime New England resident who played with Muddy Waters Band, both gave him encouragement and pointers.

At age 13 in 1992 – then known as “Little Mikey,” he appeared at the opening of the new House of Blues on Harvard Square in Cambridge when it relocated to Harvard Square from downtown Boston. Co-owner Dan Aykroyd hosted the gala along with the Blues Brothers Band. Welch’s playing was so impressive that night that Aykroyd referred to him as “Monster Mike” – a name that quickly stuck. He abandoned the moniker later, only to pick it up again after his then-future wife Jeannette told him that “every time I say I’m dating a guitar player named Mike Welch, they go: ‘Monster Mike Welch?’”

At age 14, he’d already shared the stage with Junior Wells, James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin and Johnny Copeland and formed the Mike Welch Band, a unit that included George Lewis, the House of Blues jam leader, on second guitar with Warren Grant (Joe “Guitar” Hughes and Ron Levy’s Wild Kingdom) with Jon Ross on bass.

After being honored as the best blues band in the 1995 Boston Music Awards, they released three albums on the Tone-Cool imprint between 1996 and 1998: These Blues Are Mine, Axe to Grind and Catch Me. They also played the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway, one of the top music events in Europe, in 1997.

And the teenage whiz kid was featured in USA Today and People magazine, on national TV via Entertainment Tonight and A Current Affair and Extra in addition to a wide array of music publications, too, including Rolling Stone, which described his powerful fretwork as being able to “rip the top of your head and cram your brains into your neck.”

But fame came with a price.

As he told Blues Blast interviewer Terry Mullins a few years ago: “I struggled with (the attention) all the time… Some of my decisions (back then) were compensation for not wanting to be seen as immature or shallow” – something that manifested through his insistence of recording only originals on his albums.

In 1998, he released Catch Me, an album that incorporated Motown R&B and British pop into his usual blues mix. He took a hiatus from performing after touring to promote it.

“I’d been going in different musical directions,” he says, “some which worked and some which didn’t. I said: ‘Okay, I’ll step back and go to Berklee School of Music and fill in the gaps, learn about music that I don’t know about.’ And the first semester I did at Berklee, I felt, was the best move I’d made in a long time.”

imageIt’s been a great place for hundreds of other young, promising musicians, too. Now rebranded as a Berklee College of Music and one of the most prestigious institutions of its type in the world, it’s produced dozens of top entertainers across multiple mediums, including Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, Quincy Jones and more recently Wyclef Jean, John Mayer, Susan Tedeschi and Vanessa Collier.

“That lasted a couple of semesters,” Mike says. “At that point, my mom had gotten sick, and I wanted to be closer to home. And, just mental health-wise, I needed a break.

“I felt like I was learning so much, I was succeeding and getting all these new ideas. And then, during the second semester, I got two phone calls, one of which was from Dave Maxwell, asking if I wanted to play some gigs with James Cotton, and the other one was from (Michael) Mudcat Ward, asking me if I wanted to join Sugar Ray and the Bluetones.

“So I started doing a couple of those gigs, and realized that I could continue in school and ‘succeed’ — or I could actually give this music the attention it needed.

“When I got those calls, I realized: ‘Oh, it’s been a while. I have to go back to blues school’ – even things that had nothing to do with what I’d be playing with the Bluetones or Cotton. I went back and listened to all the Son House, the T-Bone (Walker), both Sonny Boy Williamsons and everything I remembered just so I could be living it and ripping it when I had to get on the stage with James Cotton or Sugar Ray Norcia.

“I came to realize that it made more sense for me to be doing that.”

The experience with Cotton, Welch says, felt akin to what 25-year-old James must have experienced with Muddy when they recorded the monumental Chess LP, Muddy Waters at Newport 1960.

“It was a band that had been put together by Maxwell,” he says, “Mudcat, (Ronnie Earl drummer) Per Hanson, (vocalist) Darrell Nulisch, me and Cotton. It was the most traditional band that Cotton had had for a while, so he was really getting into it when we played Muddy tunes.

“At one point, we were playing a slow blues and I started playing Muddy slide stuff. Cotton looks at me and says: ‘You’re welcome on my stage any time!’

“I did everything I could to not start sobbing. And then the next time I played with him, he started stealing the wallet out of my pants every time I played a solo. He was sitting down. I’d come up on his right side, feel something and look around. He’d be holding up my wallet, going: ‘Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh!’

“He was Cotton…he liked to mess with people.

“I only did about three or four gigs because schedules didn’t match up, but those gigs changed the direction of my life. Kirk Fletcher and I talk about this all the time: We’re the last generation who get to do gigs with Cotton, where there’s a sense of that legacy being passed on. It’s something I’ll never take that for granted.”

Welch’s relationship with Norcia started to flower in the early 2000s, making their first appearance on CD when they shared billing on a Severn release, Sugar Ray & the Bluetones Featuring Monster Mike Welch, in 2003. The first of five albums he’s record with the band, the disc included five of his own compositions and remained in the Top Five on Living Blues radio charts for months.

It was really a comfortable fit because Monster Mike had already been playing with Mudcat, drummer Neil Gouvin and keyboard player Anthony Geraci in and around Beantown for a decade. “For the first few months of my having a professional band, I looked at my parents and said: ‘I don’t need to make money,’” he remembers. ‘What I really need is to play with great players.’

“The first few months of the Mike Welch Band, I had Mudcat and Neil…cause…why not?”

The family feeling they enjoyed then spans two stints in the Bluetones and continues today, he says, noting: “The first time through, I was a little subconscious about how much I’d been influenced by Ronnie Earl and Kid Bangham, who were the Bluetones’ guitarists before me.”

That was prior to a two-year break, during which he released another solo album, Adding Insight to Injury, then spent time between the U.S. and France, where he toured with Maxwell and Nico Wayne Toussaint, a gifted French harp player who maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic today.

During that period, he also cut two discs for the French imprint DixieFrog: Cryin’ Hey! Monster Mike Welch Plays the Blues (backed by Grant, Nick Moss, Geraci and Ward) and Just Like It Is, both of which were recorded in the U.S., but distributed in Europe.

“When I came back to the Bluetones, though, I was much more comfortable and saying: ‘I’m just gonna play like me,’” Mike says. “If that sounded much like Ronnie, that’s fine. If not, that’s fine, too.

“After all, I learned so much from him. He was always one of my biggest influences and always available for his time and information. Part of what drew me to him was that I could not go see Magic Sam or Guitar Slim or whoever. But I could see Ronnie compress this into a hyper-intense version of all of those things in a way in which he never sounded like anyone but Ronnie Earl – which, for me, made the world make sense!”

imageWelch’s run with the Bluetones lasted 25 years in total, something that started to change in 2012, when he first crossed paths with Ledbetter in Memphis. As Ledbetter told this writer for an article that appeared here late in 2018 three months before his passing: “It was the Wednesday night jam at the Rum Boogie Café that the Nick Moss Band was running. Nick called up Jimi Bott on drums, Mike Welch on guitar. Moss grabbed a bass with Travis (Reed) on keyboards, and Curtis (Salgado) got up to sing.

“If there was ever a moment you didn’t want to miss as a listener that was it. It was so incredible. Curtis called out a Muddy Waters slow blues. Once Curtis called the tune, Mike started doing his thing. I wanted to see how he was playing the slide…what kind of slide he had. But he wasn’t doing it with a slide at all. He was doing it with his fingers – and he did it perfectly!

“My mind was absolutely blown. I’d never seen anyone do that before. And I still haven’t heard anyone do it to the degree he does to this day. They got done with that set, and I had to meet this dude.”

It’s a unique skill, Welch says today, that he developed to spare himself the necessity of dedicating a guitar solely for slide use. “My playing had become more and more slippery with a lot of bending and vibrato over time,” he remembers. “The obvious point of reference would be Otis Rush, who, on some level, was really trying to sound like Earl Hooker with the slide.

“I had my guitar set up in a way where there were lighter strings, and they were closer to the neck. So I just sat around the house, moving strings around until it sounded a little like Robert Nighthawk or Hooker. And then it got to the point that it was easier (to do that) than carrying a slide around.

“The funny part about it these days is that I don’t realize when I’m doing it unless I’m playing a Nighthawk or Muddy song. It’s something that’s just become a part of my phrasing…muscle memory. You spend a while learning the language. Then, after a while, you just start having conversations in it. That’s the goal…to be playing it without having to think about playing it. It’s just the sound in my head that’s making it (the guitar) say what I want to say.”

Welch and Ledbetter were drawn together instantly like opposite poles on a magnet, but their eventual partnership didn’t start taking place until they were invited by producer Dick Shurman to appear at a tribute to Otis Rush that was going to take place at the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival. Both men were steeped in Otis’ music – Welch having played his tunes for years and Ledbetter covering a couple of his them a short time earlier on Earl’s award-winning album, Father’s Day – but Shurman wasn’t planning to pair them on stage.

That changed when Ledbetter looked at the roster of performers, spotted Monster Mike’s name and asked him: ‘Who’s on his set?’” then suggested they appear together. Fortunately for blues lovers everywhere, Shurman readily complied.

Their chemistry proved so powerful that afternoon, they quickly decided to collaborate on an album. With a title based off of Otis’ Wrong Place Wrong Time, their CD, Right Place Right Time, was released by Delta Groove to worldwide acclaim.

They formed the Welch Ledbetter Connection a short while later, a unit that was anchored by a skin-tight rhythm section: former Tommy Castro bassist Scot Sutherland and drummer Andrew “Blaze” Thomas, one of the most in-demand players in Chicago. Four months after Ledbetter’s passing, they swept entertain, band and guitarist of the year honors at the 2019 BMAs – without an album under that name to call their own.

Discussing Ledbetter today is always a “parallel conversation,” Welch says with deep emotion. In one universe it centers on the artist he was and the career he enjoyed. The other is much more basic, he says: “I just miss my friend.”

Ledbetter simply was different, Mike insists, something he noticed the first time the vocalist opened his mouth. Simply put, there was no one else in the blues like him – a virtuoso talent trained in opera, but using his talent to continue the legacy of music that had sprung from the cotton fields of Mississippi instead of the glamorous stages of Europe.

“Who was even playing that game at that point?” Welch asks. “All of the people on that level skill-wise were doing other things with that skill. The fact that he wanted to make a record with me and put a band together specifically to play West Side Chicago blues… (laughs) …how often does that happen? As far as I can tell…once – since Magic Sam left!

“That was the thing for me and Mike: We were both people who had deep connections with other musicians. We were both intense listeners, and the music we wanted to make was so-o-o compatible. If blues guitar players are trying to play like blues singers, when I heard Mike, I finally heard the singer that I’d been trying to play like since I picked up the guitar.

image“I’ve heard live tapes where he and I are going back and forth, vocal and guitar, and it’s almost comical. The vibrato’s the same. The slides between notes are the same. The timing is the same. The fact that I got a couple of years of that…that’s the greatest blessing I’ve had in my musical life.”

Ledbetter’s end came on Jan. 21, 2019, when he suffered an epileptic seizure while taking a shower at home – a passing that rocked the entire blues community to its core and occurred shortly after they’d been signed to Alligator Records for an album that Monster Mike was going to produce – something unknown to most of the outside world.

“Mike was writing songs that were just a massive leap forward,” Welch insists, “but still felt like the music we wanted to make. But even as great as he was through his entire duration of his performing career, he was on the precipice of something bigger artistically.

“The last real conversation he and I had other than just checking in about business stuff was two days before he passed. It lasted a couple of hours, during which we talked how much we loved each other, how proud we were about everything we’d accomplished and how important it was for us to keep communicating through the next chapter.

“But there was a sense of…with the time we had and the first record we made, we have done what we have with that. It’s a comfortable closing of that chapter and the beginning of the next one.

“I’m forever grateful that that was our last conversation with him. Most people don’t get that kind of closure,” Welch says, obviously still affected, noting that his passing came so early when he deserved so much more. “He and I were in a good place. He was a remarkable dude.”

The feeling of love they enjoyed with each other was pervasive through the entire Welch-Ledbetter organization, he insists, beginning with the bandmates and extending through both of their families to their manager, Gina McClain, and business associates and encompassing friends and fans, too.

“Mike was very go…if he loved you, he’d let you know. That was something we all carried over to our conversations, which usually ended: ‘Love you. See you soon!’”

Ten days after Ledbetter’s passing, the band and their families, Mike’s widow included, boarded Holland America’s Ms. Nieuw Statendam for the weeklong winter Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. With Mike’s death so fresh in everyone’s mind, the normally joyous festivities began in what can only be described as a somber mood – something that brightened steadily because of the unwavering support from the family of cruisers and fellow musicians onboard.

For Monster Mike, it was both a blessing and a lifesaver.

“First and foremost, it was an outpouring of love for Mike and his memory,” he notes. “But it was also all of my friends reaching out to make sure I survived. Everyone stepped up at the last minute. Curtis reorganized his plans, and Andrew did, too. Certainly, at that point, I wasn’t ready to say I was going to be the singer. It took me a while after that to start finding my voice again.”

Having Salgado and Duncanson on board and lending their sweet, sweet voices in tribute was something akin to a huge, virtual hug that provided comfort and some semblance of closure for everyone.

“If I could have shown Mike the picture of Anson Funderburgh on stage wearing a Welch-Ledbetter T-shirt, he would have loved that so much,” Welch says. “It was everything you could expect out of that situation at its best. Everyone just held their heads up and got everyone else through it.”

The actions on the ship that week were just the beginning of something even more special, he notes, adding: “One of the first people I heard from was Danielle Nicole who just stepped up and started organizing benefits, and Victor Wainwright and his people surrounded me with so much love.

“The first half of 2019, my friends pulled this thing off where they honored Mike’s memory and kept me alive at the same time. I’m forever grateful.”

As the second half of the year came around, however, things got harder and harder, Welch admits. “I’ve had severe depression most of my life, and once the reality of everything that had happened started to set in, things got worse and worse.”

He was already in discussion with a major label about returning to the studio for a new album and he’d already written three tunes for the project. Suddenly, however, he came to the realization that he needed to take a break from music, finding that he’d lost his ability to write more material and fearing he wouldn’t survive the rigors of promoting and touring to support the disc if he made one. “I didn’t know how long a break it would be,” he remembers. “It could be only two weeks, and people might not realize I was gone. Or it could be substantially longer.”

Fortunately, he’s now back large and in charge with a new, upbeat attitude after undergoing a medical procedure in January. He underwent a series of six sessions in which doctors treated him with minute amounts of the drug ketamine, which, he says, “rewired my brain. It made a huge difference. It saved my life – because I had gotten low before that.”

imageIt was then, however, as Welch finally was taking stock of his situation and making solid strides forward that the outside world went to hell around him because of COVID-19.

“The joke I made in March was: ‘Just because I said I was taking a break doesn’t mean that I think everyone else has to!’” he says. “And, right now, because of all of the incompetence of the response, all of us will have literally lost a year as a culture.”

Despite the lockdown, Mike’s quick to point out that he’s been more productive and prolific than he had been in months. In addition to doing some remote guitar lessons, he’s also produced and released an album, Live and in Lockdown, a project on which he laid down and recorded all of the backing instrumentation before using it to capture his guitar licks and voice live on top of it.

He decided to do it after being recruited to stream a live, solo concert on the Facebook Can’t Stop the Blues page – something he was reluctant to attempt because he preferred a full-band environment. “I know what I want to hear out of a band when we’re playing off of each other,” he says, “so I spent days upon days working on the backing track, moving cymbal crashes and bass notes around until it felt right.

“I’m really proud of the result. Would I put it out on a CD and promote it? I don’t know. If and when touring happens again, though, it’s likely I’ll print up copies to sell.” It’s currently available as a stream or download by visiting https://monstermikewelch.bandcamp.com/album/live-and-in-lockdown. And if you like that one, he’s already in the process of tweaking a follow-up, although the timing of its release remains up in the air.

Meanwhile, Mike wants everyone to know how much gratitude he has for all of the positive thoughts, expression of love and everything else folks have provided through this extremely difficult time.

“As much as the bright spots have been hugely bright – my wife and my child are thriving and flourishing – the past couple of years have been the worst of my life,” he says. “And the thing that’s kept me afloat is the support of the people around me – everyone from the musicians and business people to the folks who simply listen to my music. I’m really humbled.”

As for performing live again, however, that’s something that remains outside of his current comfort zone, noting: “I have friends out there touring. At present, however, I can’t wrap my head around that as a good idea. But also know that people need to work.

“Right now, the next thing I have on my schedule is the 2021 Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas. After that, I have a possible Switzerland gig with Anthony Geraci in 2023.”

Until then, check out Mike’s music and – hopefully – and shows he’ll be booking between now and then by visiting www.monstermikewelch.wordpress.com.

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