‘Mighty’ Mike Schermer took a huge risk leaving Santa Cruz—but as he returns this week, it’s paid off
The novelist Thomas Wolfe famously noted that you can’t go home again, but to the best of my knowledge Mr. Wolfe never caught a wave on Steamer Lane. Santa Cruz has changed some since “Mighty” Mike Schermer moved to Austin in 2009 and gave up his unofficial title as Surf City’s reigning blues guitarist, but the waves remain the same, and it’s a good bet you can find him catching a few over the weekend.
Introduced to surfing by veteran soul and blues saxophonist Terry Hanck, Schermer took to it much like he made the blues his own—with ease. He returns to town Thursday to make his Kuumbwa debut, celebrating the release of his lean and aptly titled fourth album Blues In Good Hands (VizzTone).
Joined by bassist Steve Ehrmann, drummer Paul Revelli, and keyboardist Tony Stead, the same top-shelf rhythm section that’s featured on the album, Schermer also recruited Nancy Wright, one of the region’s busiest blues saxophonists to make up “an all-star amalgamation of people who play their asses off,” he says.
By just about every measure, Santa Cruz was good to Schermer. Hailing from a high-achieving New York family (one sister is a geophysicist, another is a trauma surgeon), he landed at UCSC in 1984 and quickly experienced a transformative epiphany hearing blues legend Albert Collins at Kresge Town Hall. “Everything changed after that night,” he says. “I bought a Telecaster the next day.”
While he was transfixed by Collins’ scorching Texas soul, Schermer eventually gravitated to the cool and jazz-inflected West Coast sound of T-Bone Walker. Schermer’s elegant and stinging single note lines attracted the attention of blues stars such as Elvin Bishop and Bonnie Raitt. As a co-founder of the Soul Drivers with Andy Santana and drummer June Core, he brought a bracing jolt of jump blues to Moe’s Alley with an eight-year Tuesday night gig.
Duly impressed, Austin blues icon Angela Strehli adopted the Soul Drivers as her band, which gave Schermer an intimate look at the Austin scene. He loved the Santa Cruz lifestyle, but a confluence of bad news and good timing prompted him to pick up stakes.
“I had just got out of an eight-year relationship, and my dog just died,” he says. “I know it sounds like a country song, but it’s true.”
Never one to make a move too soon, he was loathe to trade his big fish/small pond status for a much larger pool of talent. But when he got word that the guitar chair in Marcia Ball’s band had opened up, a gig that entailed relocating to Austin, he jumped at the opportunity.
“It was just never a town I felt confident about moving to,” Schermer says. “You’re one of 3 million guitarists, and the guy serving your pizza can play circles around you. But joining Marcia was a way to move there and have a soft landing with steady work.”
He’s been an essential component of Ball’s band ever since, touring about four months out of every year with her, and contributing to her Grammy Award-nominated 2011 album Roadside Attractions and 2014’s The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man.
Schermer’s full array of skills comes into focus on his own projects. Blues In Good Hands showcases his talents as a player, songwriter, vocalist, and bandleader who artfully employs a glittering cast of special guests, including Ball, Strehli, Terry Hanck, Tommy Castro, John Németh, and Vicki Randle. A standout songwriter since his second album, 2005’s Next Set, he’s grown considerably since moving to Austin. Even while showcasing his illustrious cast, he delivers each tune with a minimum of fuss, stripped down to essentials.
“The fun of producing your own record is that you hand-pick the people you want,” Schermer says. “But you start with the song, and resist getting too busy. A good song can be played on just an acoustic guitar or a piano, and if it doesn’t hold up—well, it’s not as good as you thought it was.
Info: 7 p.m. Thursday Oct. 1, Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $15/adv, $20/door. 427-2227.
LEVITATE ME Mike Schermer shows off his other cool guitar tricks Thursday at Kuumbwa.