For 19-year-old bandleader Mike Welch (he recently dropped the "Monster" tag), a passion for music began by the time he was eight years old. Not with the blues, but with John Lennon.
"Anyone who knows me really well knows that I still really havenít gotten over my Beatlemania," says Welch, who is calling from a pay phone in Paris, France, where his band is touring. "These days I tend to crack up [at being labeled a blues musician], because the part of me that wanted to be John Lennon since third grade is still there."
But the Lexington, Massachusetts, native, whose band is now touring in support of its third Tone-Cool Records release, Catch Me, also spent years obsessed with the blues and especially with Albert King.
"From the time I was 10 until the time I was 14, I was a rabid blues purist, which is something that Iím not at all any more," Welch notes. "But there were a good few years in there when I didnít want to listen to anything else but the blues."
The King obsession evokes a peculiarly charming, Norman Rockwell-meets-Robert Johnson image. "It was Albert Kingís crying from his soul that captured this eight-year-old boy," recalls Welchís mother, Jan, who manages her sonís music business affairs. "Heíd put on Albert King and say, ĎMom, when I grow up, thatís what Iím going to be.í And Iíd say, ĎI donít care how hard you try, youíre never going to be a six-foot six-inch black man.í"
Maybe not, but after practicing obsessively for eight to 10 hours a day, the precocious youngster became a regular at local blues jams around Boston by age 11 and two years later was invited to play the opening of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, House of Blues in 1992. Hosted by Dan Aykroyd (who gave Welch the "Monster" moniker), the show featured the Blues Brothers Band, including Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. Eddie Floyd, Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Wells, John Mooney and Robert Jr. Lockwood were also on the impressive bill.
"My friends at school said, ĎThis is so cool. Youíre going to go play with Dan Aykroyd,í" Welch recalls. "And I said, ĎNah, nah, nah, Iím going to play with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn.í"
It was a turning point for young Welch. "For the first time in my life I realized that I was being treated ó if not as an equal ó then at least with serious respect by people that Iíd heard on records all my life," he says.
Welch put together his first band in 1993 and by age 16 had a deal with Tone-Cool, releasing These Blues Are Mine, followed by last yearís Axe to Grind. His latest release reflects both his diversity of influences ó which include í60s R&B, as well as the Beatles and a variety of blues guitarists ó and his disregard for being branded as a blues artist or within any certain style.
"To me, [stylistic] labels donít really matter. Listening to Robert Johnson doesnít feel that much different from listening to Elvis Costello or John Coltrane. It just feels like great music to me. Itís all part of the same continuum," Welch says. "One of the things that I like about most of the generation of younger players is that they seem to get that point, that the blues is an influence, itís not a straitjacket."