Blues Progress: Coco Montoya goes solo
The blues is an universal language. Of course, there was a time when all of its
credible sources were of African-American descent. Black artists such as B.B. King,
Albert King, and Albert Collins revolutionized the genre with passionate compositions and emotional electric guitar work.
Then came the Brits. Bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and John Mayall’s
Bluesbreakers echoed the sounds of America’s Southern underbelly and urban inner cities, recasting the music into pop forms, introducing blues shapes to suburban teens that might never have heard such music.
The blues of American blacks and white Englishmen definitely had certain aesthetic differences, but the same visceral rhythms and enlivened sentiments were present in both. Coco Montoya’s history with this music stems from listening to acts from both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, during his career as musician he has played with artists such as the Texas-born Albert Collins and British blues magnate, John Mayall. Although he learned much from both artists, his growth as a player stems from his own internal sensibilities.
"I approach music purely from an emotional standpoint," Montoya says. "When I was learning, I
never took formal lessons. I never analyzed what I did. I just heard things that I liked and wanted
and just went after them."
Montoya was born in 1951 in Santa Monica, California. His fascination with the blues started not unlike most music fans, through rock and roll. As a teen on the West coast, he listened to his parents’ record collection, and began learning the guitar as well as the drums. He says, however, that his earliest introduction to blues was via R&B legend and DJ Johnny Otis. "He had a TV program that was pretty amazing," Montoya says. "I didn’t know it at that time, but I was watching, observing, and learning from all the greats he was putting on his show." It was at a Creedence Clearwater Revival concert in the late ‘60s that Montoya first saw the man who would help propel him to fame. The opening act was famed bluesman Albert King, and according to Montoya, his world changed that night.
By 1972, that change would take hold of his career while he was drumming for a local rock act in Culver City, California. One night, he noticed that someone had been playing on his drum set. It turned out the someone was from Albert Collins’ band. Collins apologized to the young Montoya and invited him to see his show. The same feeling he experienced while seeing King crept up on him during Collins’ energetic performance. When the popular veteran needed a drummer a few months later, Montoya was the man. For the next five years, he would remain with Collins and eventually pick up the guitar.
"I found camaraderie with Albert," Montoya says of his mentor. "He wasn’t able to explain anything that he did as a player. He just did what he did and you had to learn from him by looking, watching, and feeling. From a human standpoint, it was also about learning about some of the horrible things he had to go through when he didn’t have a record contract, the double standards that went on because he was black." Montoya left Collins’ band in 1980. John Mayall happened to walk into a bar where Montoya was play-ing a few years later. In the ‘60s, Mayall had helped future superstars such as Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones get their starts. Mayall ex-tended an invitation to Montoya, who would remain in his group,
the Bluesbreakers, for over 10 years. "I always thought he would hold Clapton over my head," Montoya says. "I always thought, ‘How do I impress this guy?’ But he gave me a sense of self-worth. He was always very en-couraging and helped me get my self-esteem together." In 1995, Montoya made his debut as a solo act with the record Gotta Mind to Travel (Blind Pig Records), which featured Montoya’s sharp guitar skills and flexibility as a frontman. He’s recently released his fourth album, Suspicion, on Alligator Records. It’s an accomplished effort, combining saucy blues with electrified rock riffs, generating a sound accessible to non-blues fans but is still
firmly rooted in the genre’s soulful core.
"I play music I like," Montoya says. "I play music that makes me feel good and want to experiment with. When I’m recording, I’m not really thinking about whether or not it’s going to be a hit record. I kind of think that the best I can give anybody is the best I can give myself." As a guitarist, Montoya’s left-handed approach is spectacular: He delivers solos with a raw sensation that reflect his rock influences as well as an adherence to the blues.
Montoya is winding down after a summer on the festival circuit where he’s been promoting Suspicion. He says the reaction to the new material has been quite positive so far and hopes it’s as popular as his previous works. "Sometimes you get tired on the road," he says. "But as a motivator, I tell myself each night that I’m lucky to be here, alive and playing, so I’ll go out and do my best because who knows when it will be my last performance?"
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