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Stratcat Willie & the Strays

Stratcat Willie & the Strays at Blue Thursday

Presented by the WNY Blues Society, sponsored by Three Chord Bourbon, March 9, 2023 at the Sportsmen’s Tavern

By Ida Goeckel

I wasn’t going out that Thursday. Typically, it was my band’s rehearsal night, but we were off that day. I noticed I had a voicemail from a friend, who had plans to go to the Thursday Night Blues series at the Sportsmen’s Tavern, sponsored by the WNY Blues Society, and wanted to know if I was interested in attending as well.

Let me preface this. Back in the Fall I introduced myself to the president of the WNY Blues Society, and I told him I was interested in volunteering, and that I had written for their newsletter in the past. I said I would be interested in picking up my journalistic pen once again to write a review column, and he wholeheartedly agreed to give me a shot. So, when this opportunity to attend Stratcat Willie and the Strays presented itself, I thought, now is as good a time as any to get started on my first assignment. So I said, “I’ll be there!”

Stratcat Willie and the Strays did not disappoint!  The band members consisted of Dave Salce on drums and backup vocals, Neal Massa on keys and backup vocals, Dave Mikelson on bass and backup vocals, and the leader of the band, Stratcat Willie Hayes, on lead guitar and lead vocals.

The band’s high octane 2 set performance of mostly original and some cover tunes was some of the best blues variety and quality I have heard in a long time. Every style of blues from traditional, to boogie woogie, to down home swamp, to Latin groove and more was represented.   Not only was the supporting musicianship top notch, but I heard some of the most excellent vocal harmonies in the blues genre, that really added that extra factor. Most of the original material was off his latest CD, On a Hot Tin Roof, and showcased Willie’s songwriting abilities, tasty guitar chops, as well as his clear as a bell tenor voice. Its title track, Hot Tin Roof, as well as his instrumental, Mezcal, emulated guitar tones reminiscent of Dick Dale. Many of his song are biopic, such as Running With the Strays, for example. From beginning to the last, the entire band was entertaining, with Willie at the center of it all, engaging his appreciative audience with his story-telling and humor. He preaches the Good News of the Blues in a song of the same title. And yes, there was copious dancing! As they say, “the juke joint was jumpin’”!

After the show, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with the 75 years old young Willie to have a comfortable interview. Willie is a humble and down-to-earth guy,originally from Painted Post, N.Y. and who now lives in Watkins Glen, N.Y. He stated he actually has worked with two rhythm sections, as some of his long time musician partners in musical “crime” do not travel.  His current keyboard player, Neal Massa, has been with him the longest, and drummer, Dave Salce, has been with him for the past ten years. Both are from Ithaca, N.Y. and bassist, Dave Mikelson, is from Skaneateles, N.Y.  His other rhythm section is comprised of bassist, John Wisson, who has been with him since 1965, and drummer, Dave Fiorini. Willie also indicated that there used to be a Central New York Blues Society, but that that entity no longer exists. He stated he was very grateful and excited to now be connected to the WNY Blues Society and hopes to do more shows in the Buffalo area.

Q: Willie, you spend a lot of effort paying tribute to various styles of blues, its originators, and modeling after them in your own songs. How did you know that blues was your thing and what does it evoke in you? How long have you been listening/playing the blues? How does one discover blues in your hometown? Who were your blues/guitar heroes?

W: When I heard the blues, it just caught my ear.  I was 16 years old when I first heard it. First it was the Ventures, who are technically blues, then Mike Bloomfield and Al Cooper, which lead me to Paul Butterfield and then to Johnny Winter. I first played guitar in 1965 in a band because to be in a band was a big thing then. There was no local blues scene. Another blues band that we started in 1996 was the Blue Plate Special. My heroes were/are Mike Bloomfield, T-Bone Walker, and I would give anything to play like Duke Robillard.

Q: What do you think about the state of the blues now? Are there enough young artists to carry the torch?

W: Yes, I would say there are young players. The one artist who I really like is Gabe Stillman. He’s a very talented young artist. Also Mathias Lattin, winner of the “Best Guitar Player in a band” award at the 2023 IBC’s in Memphis.

Q: What’s next on the horizon for you?

W: We are releasing the 4 song EP vinyl cut of On a Hot Tin Roof on an international level. We are also working on our next CD and have a Spring/Summer season full of gigs, mostly in the Finger Lakes region. Also, we aspire to become more actively involved with the WNY Blues Society.

 You can find out more about Stratcat Willie and the Strays on their website

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