Monster Mike Welch
Axe to Grind
Tone Cool 1159

Yes, itís hard to step back and assess Axe to Grind on its own terms. Iím sure Welch, like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, are all tired of their ages being scrutinized before their music, yet how can you not help but take note? To play the blues, life must really be complicated and experienced in order to be authentically communicated, right? Only then can nuance and subtlety be learned and incorporated.

That said, Welch certainly has a foot up on the ladder. There is simply no denying his technical virtuosity ó the guy can wail. Itís scary to realize that heís only 20. "My Emptiness" is the key moment here. A hushed tone and mood prevails, with whispered vocals conveying despair; then a gripping guitar solo flies in the face of this despair and shatters it. Yes, this cut bodes well for the future, showing that Welch can dig deep and will uncover his own voice.

Not that the rest of Axe to Grind is chopped liver, either. In fact, itís a rocking affair indeed, a la Stevie Ray, perhaps even a bit beholden to Mr. Vaughan. Yet how, you ask, can such a big, hoarse voice emanate from the mouth of a babe? (I know Iím backsliding, but just look at the picture of Welch, flanked by his band of seasoned journeyman ó a stark and funny contrast, to say the least.)

The band performs admirably, George Lewis being the key figure as rhythm guitarist and co-writer of most of the songs. Song after song, Welch steps up with white hot leads, supple and lightning quick.

One criticism: the mostly overwrought vocals, delivered as if he were trying too hard to be soulful or authentic. A suggestion might be to back off a little, especially with the vibrato, and Axe to Grind would be that much more enjoyable. The two instrumentals, "Cruise Control" and "Elkmont Stomp," offer contrast and work just as effectively.

Not that Welch and crew donít offer up a good workout of stompiní and rockiní blues, effortless in execution. Can he develop and take it all one step further? Heís got lots of time to find out, and the ride should be worth the wait.

ó Jon Martinez

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Boulder, CO, USA.