Coco is Crisp
Blues standout Coco Montoya plays a rare Oldemeyer Center show.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
The blues is a tough taskmaster, and there are precious few musicians who have succeeded in the art form after getting a late start.
Coco Montoya is one of the rare exceptions. His path to the top of the blues heap has been long and meandering, offering few early clues that he’d end up as one of the music’s most popular and compelling guitarists. He’s not the most technically dazzling guitar slinger on the scene, but for pure power and feeling he’s unsurpassed– a fiery blues rock player with a taut, percussive attack and clean, stinging tone that provides a striking contrast to his gritty vocals. By the time he released his first album as a leader in 1995, Gotta Mind To Travel (Blind Pig Records), he had spent more than two decades paying dues with some of blues’ most influential figures.
“Nothing in my career was planned,” says Montoya, 56, who performs Saturday at the Oldemeyer Center. (The concert benefits Seaside’s scholarship program for students majoring in performing arts.) “It was an evolution. There was never a goal, except for the fantasy that, Wouldn’t it be great to make it big one day?”
Born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of the laidback beach town of Santa Monica, Montoya started his career as a rock drummer in Los Angeles. A chance encounter with guitar legend Albert Collins gave him the opportunity to delve deeply into the blues, which he loved but seldom played.
They first met in the early 1970s when the Telecaster master’s band played a Culver City club where Montoya had a regular gig, and he ended up sitting in with Collins on a number of tunes. Desperate for a drummer a few months later, Collins called Montoya and hired him for a six-week tour of the Pacific Northwest.
“Naively, I figured there would be a week or rehearsals,” Montoya says. “But he says ‘I’ll be by to pick you up in four hours.’ We loaded up in a U-Haul trailer and off we went, while the guys tried to fill me in on the show.”
The six weeks stretched into five years on the road, and the two musicians ended up forming an exceptionally close bond that lasted until Collins’ death in 1993. “He watched over me pretty well,” Montoya says. “Made me call my mother every week. He’d get mad if I didn’t.”
By the time he left Collins, though, the romance of the road had long since worn off. While he got a chance to play with blues legends like Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton and Lowell Fulson, the blues has never been a route to riches. Tired of driving for hours to play gigs that paid “chump change,” Montoya decided to leave the band in 1976 and get a day job as a bartender.
“I had money in my pocket for the first time,” Montoya says. “I bought an amp and a guitar and became a weekend warrior who played just to have fun.”
It was another chance encounter that brought Montoya back onto the music scene, but this time as a guitarist. While playing a popular jam session at a Sunset Strip nightclub in 1983, Montoya noticed John Mayall in the audience and broke into a version of his hit “All Your Love” as a tribute. When Mayall was reassembling his storied Bluesbreakers a few months later he recalled Montoya and offered him the gig.
Montoya had serious doubts about taking over a guitar chair that had helped launch the careers of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor “but I figured Mayall was one of my idols and that I’d be a fool not to at least have the experience of playing in a band that Clapton was in,” Montoya says. “I never thought I was good enough, but if I lasted a couple of months, I could say I was a Bluesbreaker.”
He ended up staying for 10 years, and by the time he was ready to set out on his own in 1993 he had become part of Bluesbreakers’ lore. His first CD, the previously mentioned Travel, garnered four W. C. Handy Awards nominations in 1996 and the guitarist ended up taking home the trophy for Best New Blues Artist. His fan base expanded exponentially with his debut on Alligator, 2000’s Suspicion, an album that cemented his status as one of the music’s most impassioned soloists, a musician steeped in the blues tradition but unafraid to stretch the genre.
His latest release, last year’s Dirty Deal (Alligator), is his most definitive statement yet. Produced by Little Feat’s Paul Barrere, the session captures the searing blue-flame intensity of Montoya’s Stratocaster, an icy-hot scream suffused with soul. Backed by his powerful road-tested band, and joined on several tracks by the Little Feat crew, the guitarist pays tribute to his mentor with Collins’ classic “Put the Shoe on the Other Foot.” While he’s steeped in the blues tradition, he’s not beholden to the past.
“It’s going to evolve, and a lot of people aren’t happy about that,” Montoya says. “Some of my best friends are monster traditional players, but there are people who have new ideas and are mixing new influences. That’s what’s supposed to happen. We have to let it breathe, because if we don’t it’s going to kill the music.”
Coco Montoya performs at 7pm on Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Oldemeyer Center, 986 Hilby St., Seaside, $25/$30 (831) 899-6805, www.ci.seaside.ca.us.