A long time Orlando institution, McWell’s, closed suddenly at the end of September following some equipment problems and a dispute with the building owner. The McCarthy family, Sue and Gary (parents); Ryan, Toni and Andy owned and operated the bar and restaurant for the past nine years. The alignment of the planets being what they are at the time prevented McWell’s from hosting a finale kind of show, stealing away an opportunity for many of us to say goodbye.
The bar would become a blues institution following the McCarthy’s partnering with Zaida Zoller and her ZShowz Productions. The ZShowz mission is bringing top-notch entertainment in a small venue setting to Central Florida. McWell’s provided that opportunity for national touring blues and americiana music in a small intimate setting, up-close-and-personal. The ability to attend a great concert where the artist is only a few feet away made for memorable shows and artist and audience interaction that came to be the McWell’s homespun hallmark.
So how did this mom and pop establishment come to be so near and dear to our hearts? I believe the reasons were Sue, Gary, Ryan, Toni, Andy, and a bunch of other fine folks we would all get to know; Jennifer and Dave Watkins, Brian Valance, Rachel Krantz, Lenore “Lala” Webb, Ivi Vilar, and a couple of other nice folks known to a lot of you, Jae and Bing Futch. These people were the roots of the McWell’s Family that would continue to grow over the years to include you and me.
Toni told me, “You were only a stranger once,” and the friendly atmosphere was what made this place so popular. So popular in fact, that when different situations arose, without asking, customers stepped up and participated. Remember the night the water main broke and when the restaurant had to be closed due to the flooding, it was the customers who stood up and helped mop the place up? When the kitchen was busy, there were customers known to get up and help with the food service!
And while the blues nuts across central Florida came to be a part of the McWell’s Family, there were other groups who also became regular fixtures. The Orlando area Parrotheads called McWell’s home for the past several years. The place was also known to cater to the firemen in the area. Not only were dinners and luncheons hosted on behalf of the Orlando Fire Department, McWell’s accepted the call from time to time and opened at 8AM so the midnight shift could have someplace to relax after work and enjoy a hearty meal and enjoy happy hour; even it was only 8:30 in the morning. There was also Jhon Builes’ Simon Sez trivia shows, and Bing Futch hosted a Dulcimerpalooza or two.
Toni and the family raved about several shows and performers over the years. A lot of that had to do with the relationships with the artists being hosted that night. When asked about the performers that stood out, Toni said three names in quick succession: E.G. Kight, Grady Champion, and J.P. Soars. Many of you know these folks too but Toni said they went out of their way to be respectful not only of her and her family, but also of the staff on duty; took the time to talk to them on a personal level; and found their own place in the McWell’s Family.
There were many other notable shows that would go on to be truly memorable evenings. Mem Shannon wowing the house with his humorous repertoire; any of the rowdy Nouveaux Honkies performances; and fan favorite and IBC champ, Selwyn Birchwood. And we can’t leave out the Chubby Carrier OBBS Christmas show a few years back! Who didn’t get up and dance that night!? I remember somebody asking then OBBS President Jerry Waller, “is every blues show like this?” To which Jerry calmly replied, “That’s the plan!”
As it stands now, the McCarthy clan is not finished. The McWells Family lives on and for now, the family is taking a much welcomed vacation from the bar business. A chapter may have closed in the blues pantheon that is the central Florida blues scene, but the family is optimistic and excited about what the future holds for them.