Bill Welch’s greatest hits: The Moe’s Alley maestro runs down his all-time favorite acts

Bill Welch.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Bill Welch of Moe’s Alley looks back on 28 years of live performances and remembers the performers that made his job magical

As the co-founder and principal owner of Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz, Bill Welch has programmed around 7,500 live music shows.

We asked Welch, who is retiring after 28 years and handing over the club to new owners Lisa Norelli and Brian Ziel, to reminisce on some of the greatest performers that have been part of Moe’s long history.

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Here’s his list:

Dave Alvin: The great Blasters guitarist brought in many of his projects over the years — Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men with Chris Gaffney, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones with his brother Phil then with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, The Knitters, Gene Taylor Blues Band. With Dave you couldn’t ask for nicer or more talented songwriter, guitarist and bandleader. The magic for me was in the show and his way of making the audience part of the stories in his songs and of course his blazing guitar playing.

The Subdudes: With their sweet harmonies and minimalist approach, the ’dudes always took me to a better place from their first song to the acoustic encores on the patio. They are true American musical treasures. Then after the show came what was at least a once-a-year celebration, which almost always led to a mutually enjoyable Pinot Noir hangover.

Bill Welch (right) with one of Moe's most prolific artists, Bay Area blues guitarist Coco Montoya.
(Courtesy Bill Welch)

Coco Montoya: Moe’s Alley in some ways is the house that Coco Montoya built. He has played Moe’s for more than 25 years and, for many of those years, multiple times. His searing guitar and passionate vocals would be the talk around Moe’s for days after he played. That was the power of music for me, something very seldom seen, but when you did, you never forgot it.

Dumpstaphunk: This band from New Orleans has played Moe’s many times. Led by Ivan Neville on keys & vocals and with his cousin Ian Neville on guitar. Also with not one but two bass players, Tony Hall and Nick Daniels, which makes for a very heavy bottom end. Over the years they have had a who’s who of New Orleans drummers.

What makes them memorable is first the greasy funky music that was always filled Moe’s to the rafters but also the situations that would always just seem to happen with them. Once they came to me right at showtime and said they couldn’t go on stage until someone removed the smoking alligator voodoo shrine that magically appeared on stage.

I looked and sure enough there was an elaborate smoking alligator shrine surrounded by hundreds of red rose pedals and a very serious looking women tending it. The show was sold out and there no way to get to the front of the stage. So I grabbed our leaf blower and from the dressing room door blew the rose pedals and shrine off the stage and asked the band if there was anything else they wanted before they went on stage. We all had a great laugh and the show went on. There was always something unexpected that would only happen on a Dumpstaphunk show.

Los Lobos, at one of the many live shows they played at Moe's over the years.
Los Lobos, at one of the many live shows they played at Moe’s over the years.
(Courtesy Bill Welch/Fred Arellano)

Los Lobos: The great LA band has played Moe’s several times and always was an amazing show to experience in a small club. The shows that I will always remember were in celebrating their 45-year anniversary of playing together as a band.

Remarkably they still have the same original members. This tour they would play a set of acoustic traditional music with the Mexican traditional instruments and take a break then come back playing their really high volume electric rigs. The contrast was just amazing, showing the diversity of these guys that had played together for so long yet did not forget where their music originated and the pride they had in their heritage.

They also always seemed to travel with a large number of extended family members, so we would take up half of the parking lot and make a private backstage area so they could visit and hang out with what usually was 40 to 50 people. What a fun time that was!

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Seun Kuti & Egypt 80: Seun is the son of Fela Kuti, the bandleader/activist who is a pioneer of Afrobeat music. I was very excited to present this show although they presented a unique problem of how to fit 15 musicians on our small stage. We made a 2x20 foot stage extension to help the situation but still at best it was going to be a hard sell to the band or so I thought. They are also from Lagos, Nigeria, so I wasn’t sure what they would be expecting. Once the band arrived for sound check everything fell into place. Seun explained to me that Moe’s reminded him of his favorite club in Lagos and that the vibe and size of the room was remarkably similar. That night Moe’s took on a feel I will never forget. It was well worth the extra work.

Bill Welch (right) with singer/songwriter and neighbor Tess Dunn.
Bill Welch (right) with singer/songwriter and neighbor Tess Dunn.
(Courtesy Bill Welch)

Tess Dunn: Tess will always be one of my favorite artists to have ever played Moe’s and let me tell why. When she was growing up, Tess was my neighbor from across the street and at a very early age was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a progressive lung disease that currently has no cure.

At a very early age she not only got into music but was absorbed by it. In 2002 Tess’s mother and I decided it was time to have a benefit to raise cystic fibrosis awareness in the community. We enlisted Nina Storey to headline the benefit and it became a great success. As time went on we did many more annual events for CFRI (Cystic Fibrosis Research, Inc). Watching my young neighbor grow into an incredibly talented musician and recording artist that would now headline these benefits is one of the great joys of my life.

Don Carlos: Don is one of the best-known roots reggae artists of the last 40 years. So when Moshe Vilozny (Moe’s booking agent) confirmed him for a show I was amazed he would be playing our club. Don was and is one of the most humble and talented artists I have ever met. He always gave 100 percent and would connect with his audience like no other. He played Moe’s many times and would always ask me how our club was doing. That always made me smile and appreciate the job I had. He also is one of the few artists that sold out every show he ever played at Moe’s.