Saved by Santana

Mike Torres’ life is all about connecting the dots, finding his purpose, finding the common denominator in every human, and building his musical career around all of it. He is well aware of struggles — everyone has to get through this crazy thing called life and music is not only his therapy, but he loves reaching people to make someone else’s day a little better.
It is sheer coincidence that Torres bears a strong resemblance to master guitarist Carlos Santana, but it is his own natural gift that allows his personal relationship with the guitar to mirror that talent of his hero in his portrayal — Evil Waze, “The Ultimate Santana Tribute Experience.”
Ironically, it was Santana who pointed Torres in the right direction years ago when he asked for his guidance regarding his own musical journey. Torres took his advice, which has led him to a career he never imagined.
Torres, who lives in Phoenix, learned guitar from his father at the age of 7 and has spent the last five decades mastering it. His musical career started just a few miles up the road from here, in Kingman, Arizona, where his father was the city’s mayor for four years, beginning in 1974.
Since then, Torres has played with such national acts such as Michael McDonald, Al DiMeola and Spyro Gyra. His current band members, consisting of some of the finest musicians from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba, reside in Las Vegas. They include Carlos Perez (lead vocals); Eric Sean Smearman, (vocals); Benny Madrid (drums); Armando Flores (bass guitar); Javier Linares (keyboards); Yanel Yanes (congas and percussion); and Angel Serrano, (multi-instrumentalist).
They bring the multi-layered and multi-cultural approach to all the signature Santana hits like “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Europa,” and more. We talked with Mike Torres about his career, his encounter with Santana and the show Evil Waze brings to Harrah’s Laughlin’s beach as part of their Summer Concert Series, on Saturday, June 15. All concerts are free to the public and all ages are welcome to attend. Here’s his take…

Give me a little background and how this tribute came to be.
I was at a crossroads, like we all get, with alcohol and all the other crap, and my wife told me to call AA or the 700 Club, so I called the 700 Club and this lady had me in tears. Not to sound religious or anything, but I got saved at that moment. I got rid of all my funky friends. I went to see Carlos Santana, when he was at the Celebrity Theater here in Phoenix. When I got to the door, one of my friends, George Blake, who was running monitors for Santana, said, “Here, Mike, here’s an all-access backstage pass — when the show’s over go around to the back, and I’ll let you in the door and Carlos will be there because he’s riding in the bus with the band.” So I did that and I approached Carlos and said, “Carlos, I need advice about music.” I wasn’t wearing a hat and I wasn’t doing a tribute to Carlos at all. We didn’t talk about anything other than music, and he told me everything I needed to do in the half hour we talked. Then three men came in like the three wise men, and they wanted to do a spiritual prayer, so I did that and when I left, I thought, “What just happened here?”
I went home and wrote a song called “Touched,” recorded it, went to the radio station, and turned it in. There were 350 people trying to get on an album, I got on. I was No. 10 and I got on with that song.
To get back to your original question I have not had a drink or a drug since 1987. Out of the blue, I get a call from Reno, Nevada, from an agency, telling me, “I’ve got a band in Vegas that I love, they’re from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba, would you be interested in doing a tribute to Carlos. I’ll pay you in cash, you’ll fly to Vegas and rehearse, and then we’ll go to Albuquerque.” So I did that and it was magical. We’re total strangers, and because they were like friends and family, it just connected right away and so that was the beginning of it. That was about 10 years ago. One of my friends told me something that I live by, you look in the mirror and say, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.”

Talk about your Laughlin connection.
Of all places, my first job was in Laughlin for the River Run at the Pioneer in 2014. I got that, it was a good job and I did that for a few years. That was my first gig I got us on my own. Then I met somebody from a veterans organization and they had a Patriotic Festival in Laughlin, and I got to do that. But that was the beginning of doing a tribute to Carlos.

Looking like someone so recognizable has to be both cool and challenging.
I’ve been mistaken for Carlos everywhere — at Walmart, Taco Bell, where a guy came up to me saying, “Are you Carlos, I’m so honored.” And I tell people the truth, when I do a show, I go out and talk to people if they’re still around afterward because I feel blessed that I’m able to do this. I just try to have fun — having fun is the best thing, when you’re having fun on stage and you’re enjoying what you do, that’s what it’s all about. So there are times I can be Mike Torres. After Carlos told me what to do, I wrote songs every day for 10 hours a day, I put a band together, and I get a phone call “You’re opening up for Michael McDonald in two weeks.” “You’re opening up for Spyro Gyro. You’re opening up for Al DiMeola,” and I got to do that because I did what Carlos told me, I created my own music.

The challenging part?
I got a call to play ASU in front of 70,000 people. I went to the college and this guy said, “Oh, my God, you do look like Carlos exactly!” I rehearsed with their band and performed twice, and then I played the Wells Fargo Arena with them. They announced that I was going to be playing the Super Bowl, not like prime time, but pre-Super Bowl, and I was supposed to do that in Glendale. The people in New York or whatever said, “No, he looks too much like Carlos.” The same thing happened when I was supposed to do a thing for the Oakland Raiders. They thought it would cause problems because everybody thought I was Santana.

What was your biggest challenge with this tribute group?
It just fell into place. I have a musical director and so I never have had to deal with drama or anything like that. It’s just tough to have any kind of drama, but getting together with the guys sometimes is challenging because one of my singers tours with Ricky Martin. I have three singers. Carlos Santana had about 27 different musicians. I have other people who are really good if I need them, I give them a call and it works out okay.

What sets you apart?
I can be critical as a musician, I’ve looked at a lot of tribute artists, you know? The one thing I think we have over them, feeling — the band is dynamic and has feeling and that was one thing I learned that when Carlos plays two notes, and people feel that, it’s because he’s playing from his heart. So that would be the difference — the band has the feeling.

It sounds like learning Santana’s style wasn’t much of a stretch for you.
I started listening to Carlos when he had the record out, Evil Ways. My wife said, “Why don’t you call your band ‘Evil Waze,’ ’cause that was one of his hits in the very beginning. I also watched the Woodstock footage, I went out and bought a guitar like his after that, so I was able to play like him pretty easily. I know Carlos started out playing in Tijuana with his dad when he was probably 14 years old — he played violin. He met a guitar player who was famous in Mexico and his name is Javier Batiz — Carlos was influenced by this guitar player from Mexico. If you listen to Javier, you can tell Carlos learned a lot from how he played. They were interviewing Javier and they were asking him about Carlos, and he said, “When I met Carlos all he did was um tin-tin, um tin-tin, he was playing mariachi music.” Javier turned him onto B.B. King, and all the blues people. I really looked into his career, I don’t know if I would be related to him, it’s just really something to look like him and play guitar, too. It’s just coincidental. I would really like to see him again and tell him, “You know, Carlos, thank you — through you, I changed my whole life no alcohol, no drugs, I play music and ever since the day I met him, every day I record, and play music. The thing that makes me happy, that makes the artist happy, is playing music. Music is very, very powerful, it really helps me out.

Is there a most challenging song?
Most of them are easy for me, there’s one called “Sunlight on the Water.” I played it yesterday, I’d never played it in my life — I’m able to improvise immediately. It’s like I channel him, and it’s really easy for me, even if I don’t know the song, I can still play it. I’ve been listening to him for so long, that it’s kind of automatic. I taught myself how to scat … do you know what that is? I could play my guitar and scat anything. So when I’m playing, whatever I think in my mind, most of the time I can play it. What makes it really good, is if you have a clear head and you’re in good spirits, then it just comes to you. That’s what’s so fun about Carlos, if you listen to him, he never plays the song the same way every time. He’ll do the meat of the song like “Europa,” — he’s definitely got an idea of what it is, but the other parts he improvises. And I like that, too. Sometimes he adds lines from other people’s songs, like “Black Magic Woman” was recorded in South America, and he adds a bit from “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. He just has fun with it.

What about the show you’re bringing to Laughlin?
The band is tight, we have fun while we’re playing, and we’re gonna be playing Carlos’s hits like “Smooth,” “Europa,” “Maria Maria,” “Evil Ways,” “Samba Pa Ti,” — we’ll play a lot of his signature songs. We’re looking forward to getting there. I still have friends in Bullhead who know me so I hope they come out to see us.


Harrah’s Beach

Saturday, June 15 (DJ opens 7:30 p.m.; Band at 9 p.m.)

Free to the public, all ages welcome