There are critics, professional and otherwise, who question Coco Montoya's dedication to blues. They point to his albums, which tack a bit toward blues-rock, and note the guitar-God histrionics that mark his concert performances.
For his part, Montoya dismissed these charges in an interview with me a few years back as the uninformed grousing of a handful of blues purists. He certainly has never heard a disparaging word from those whose opinions he values most – other musicians.
“I look at it this way," Montoya said. "I know all kinds of different blues players ... and not one of them ever turned around and said, 'You ain't legit, you ain't the real thing.' "
The source of the purists' enmity, it would seem, is Montoya's resistance to tried-and-true blues formulas.
"You can play it safe and write your 12-bar shuffles and slow blues and mambos and stay in one little tight area," he said. "But blues is not the only influence I've ever had. I've got to play all that."
Montoya will do just that this weekend when he performs Friday in Novato, Saturday in Jackson and Sunday in Santa Cruz.
Just as Montoya refuses to second-guess his approach to blues, he remains unapologetic about the band's live sets. They tend toward no-holds-barred affairs, evenings of muscular blues with plenty of guitar pyrotechnics and posing. While not averse to showmanship, Montoya said the energy and emotion he evinces on stage is not a self-conscious act.
"It's a feeling more than anything else," Montoya told me in that interview. “When you come from your emotions, musically, that's how it happens. It's not a real thought-out process. It just comes out and there it is."
As with his overall approach to blues, Montoya has received support for his live show from sources he values. It was guitar great Albert Collins, who served as Montoya's professional mentor and second father, who first spoke to him about bringing all his emotions to bear in his playing. Later, during his 10-year stint with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the godfather of British blues gave him full reign on the concert stage.
"That was the best part of being with the Bluesbreakers," Montoya said. "(Mayall) was very generous with that. Once he gave it to you, it was yours to take. Everybody wins.
"In my band, it's kind of the same way," he added. "That's how it should be. Everyone in the band gets to shine."
Live or in the studio, Montoya has enjoyed increasing success since leaving Mayall in 1993. His first solo albums – "Gotta Mind to Travel" (1995), "Ya Think I'd Know Better" (1996) and "Just Let Go" (1997) – came out on the Bay Area's Blind Pig label. Montoya was nominated for four W.C. Handy Awards and in 1996 took home Best New Blues Artist honors.
In 1999, Montoya signed with Alligator Records. With the promotional muscle of the country's leading blues label behind him, Montoya's found a larger audience with "Suspicion" (2000) and "Can't Look Back” (2002). He returned to Blind Pig for “Dirty Deal” (2007); his latest studio release is “I Want It All Back” (2010).
"It's all about taking chances and that's not the most popular way of looking at (blues)," Montoya said. "But blues is a genre like any other in music in that it needs to be allowed to expand. You've got to let it progress."
Montoya, it would seem, is particularly well suited for that. In most cases, all he's doing is bringing to blues the music he knew growing up in Santa Monica.
"I had two older sisters and an older brother, so all the rock 'n' roll and doo wop I ever wanted were in the house," Montoya said. "My mother liked some Latin music and big band. My dad was a big-band fanatic. So I was listening to all these kinds of influences. There weren't too many boundaries."
Montoya picked up the guitar initially, but by his teen years was drumming in local rock bands. His life changed forever the night he saw Creedence Clearwater Revival. Albert King was the opening act and the blues guitarist's music "went right into my soul," Montoya said.
Montoya went home and began listening to blues, but he was still playing rock 'n' roll. He met Collins when the guitarist played a club gig in Culver City. A few months later, he recruited Montoya for a short tour of the Northwest.
"I was in my back yard, hanging out with some friends," Montoya recalled. "I wasn't looking for a job, I was playing every weekend. But Albert Collins did it, he made me a road musician."
In fact, Collins did more. Over the next five years, Collins became a father figure for Montoya, dispensing not just musical tips but life lessons as well.
"That relationship was way beyond music," said Montoya, who was at Collins' bedside hours before his death in 1993. "There wasn't anything in the world that I wouldn't do for him."
Montoya dropped out of music after his tenure with Collins. Disco was in, blues was out, and he took to tending bar believing "it was over. I'd had my chance, as far as I was concerned."
Mayall provided a second chance a few years later. Montoya was jamming in a Los Angeles club when Mayall happened to walk in. Wowed by his playing, he called Montoya after deciding to re-form the Bluesbreakers.
The weight of history rests on anyone willing to play lead guitar for Mayall. Eric Clapton, fresh from the Yardbirds and bound for Cream, held the position in 1966. Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) and Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones) succeeded Slowhand. Montoya acknowledges that the legends definitely haunted him in the early days.
"I was trying to emulate everybody who had been in the band," he said. "Every time (Mayall) called out for 'Little Girl,' I was trying to live up to Eric Clapton.
"John gave me a good, stern bollocking over it. 'I didn't hire you to be a mimic, I hired you to play what you play. Clapton ain't here anymore. That was then, this is now.'
"And I thank him for that," Montoya added. "He relieved all that pressure off me."
Montoya said the message from Mayall and his other mentors – to say nothing of his blues contemporaries – has been to pursue his own approach to blues. That is just what the guitarist continues to do, no matter what the traditionalists say.
"I'm OK," Montoya said. "If somebody says that I've lost my love for blues, I'm not worried. I've got all these other guys."
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