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A Growing Talent

At 19, blues prodigy adds pop and R&B to his repertoire on latest CD.

July 16, 1998|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blues prodigy Mike Welch is now 19.

Most singer-guitarist-songwriters that age, with very few exceptions, are so fresh out of the garage that they still have motor oil on their Reeboks.

But Welch, who headlines tonight at B.B. King's, has been performing on major stages since he was 11.

At 13, he soloed at the opening of the House of Blues in Cambridge, Mass., and shared the stage with Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd, plus musical heavyweights Junior Wells, Joe Walsh and Paul Shaffer. Aykroyd christened the man-child "Monster Mike."

At age 16, Welch made his Los Angeles debut after the release of his first album, "These Blues Are Mine," on Tone Cool/Rounder Records in 1996. He was reviewed in Rolling Stone and featured on "Entertainment Tonight." He followed that with a second CD, "Axe to Grind," in 1997. He was named a "Best Bet for Stardom" in USA Today.

But just out of high school, Welch almost quit the life of a pro musician last fall.

Armed with an 800 score on his verbal SAT, the Boston-bred prodigy came West to attend UC Berkeley. But it didn't last long.

"It was a near disaster," Welch said. "It was a mistake being there, where I didn't have any friends, family or music."

It's an old song. A young person at a crossroads, deciding what direction his life is going to take.

"I wasn't ready to declare myself a musician," Welch said. "I wanted to take a whack at being a human being, but it didn't work out."

Welch, sans the "Monster Mike" tag, is coming through town again to promote his third and latest Tone Cool/Rounder CD, "Catch Me."

The funny thing about prodigies is they have a very short shelf life. They grow up and then they have to cut it with the big boys. They either grow or get out.

Welch's new CD answers that call. It shows more styles, more excursions beyond the standard blues form.

"My palette has broadened," Welch said. "We said we were not going to set up any boundaries stylistically; if anything sounded good, we'd do it. The broader the palette, the more chances you have to find yourself."

There are, of course, some blues tracks, but Welch also tries his hand at pop styles and R&B rhythms. Some tracks sound downright Beatlesque. There's even a Welch version of "Money," the old R&B tune the Beatles covered early in their recording career.

The album is evidence of musical growth, and Welch knows it.

"I'm much better at the art of choosing notes," he said. "I'm better at nuances and shading. When I was younger I was good at expressing emotion, but I'm better now at it in more subtle strokes."

Welch is not alone in a somewhat crowded blues-guitar prodigy field. He shares it with several other young people, including Jonny Lang and Jake Andrews.

"I don't feel competition," Welch said. "Obviously, there's a point of comparison--there are about 10 kids in their teens who are recording in the blues field."

Welch realizes that some people complain young people don't have the life experience, haven't experienced enough pain or paid enough dues to sing the blues.

"A young, fresh perspective to the blues can only be a healthy thing," he said.

* Mike Welch performs tonight at B. B. King's Blues Club, Universal CityWalk, 1000 Universal Center Drive, (818) 622-5464. $7 cover. Welch will also perform Sunday at the Long Beach Blues Festival.

*

Another Saturday Night: Saturdays are always unpredictable in the nightclub business.

Many clubs do a majority of their weekly business on Fridays. Show me a club that does not do good business on a Friday night, and I'll show you a club that's not long for this world.

But Saturdays are a different story. Sometimes they can be busy, and sometimes they can be dead, but rarely are they someplace in between.

Last Saturday at Smokin' Johnnie's in Studio City, it was dead.

Wife and husband music team Janiva Magness and Jeff Turmes were on stage. Magness is a wonderful singer and Turmes writes great songs--what a team! Their CD, "It Takes One to Know One," has become one of my favorites, but I'd never heard them live.

Unfortunately, it was a low-energy night. It was the kind of night musicians hate--there was just no energy in the room, either from the stage or the audience.

Magness and Turmes were working with a lead guitarist and drummer they apparently had not worked with before. They had to describe each tune to them before they started. It sounded OK, but the crispness of their recorded material was not there.

Turmes' bass playing was good, and Magness' singing was great. She definitely has a charismatic presence, but on Saturday, it wasn't enough.

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