The continuing adventures of Coco Montoya

 

Coco Montoya plays Brixton on Sunday. Photo by Frank Vigil

The fiery guitarist unleashes a soul singer’s voice and a new set of songs

Sometimes Coco Montoya will be sitting at a stop light and all of sudden it hits him, yet again.

“Where am I?” he asks himself. “How the hell did I get here?”

The question isn’t about being lost. It’s about being found. And it’s about continuing to find himself on an unlikely and astonishing musical journey that has no end in sight.

It began in 1971. Montoya was playing drums for a band in a little bar in Culver City. He didn’t particularly consider himself a musician, although he’d played drums since age of 11 and occasionally messed around on guitar. But on this day the master bluesman Albert Collins was in the house, and unbeknownst to Montoya, he took note of the young, happy-go-lucky drummer.

Then one day a year later the phone rang.

“I was at home,” Montoya said. “I wasn’t even looking for a job…And my mother comes to me and says, ‘There’s a Albert Collins on the phone, and he wants to talk to you.’ Isn’t that weird? I’m out with buddies in the back yard wondering what we are going to do – ‘Let’s go to the beach and look at girls!’ ‘How we going to get there? Whose got gas in the car?’ That kind of off the wall stuff…and all of sudden an hour later I’m on Interstate 5 in a white van heading north to a gig with Albert Collins.”

Coco drummed with Collins for the next three years, and he paid attention. Collins was one of the finest Telecaster players who ever lived. He was known for his “icy hot” guitar style, a clean, sharp attack that can be heard perhaps more in Montoya’s playing than in any other guitar player alive, since Collins’ passing. But what Montoya learned from Collins was more than a guitar tone.

“Albert was very much a father,” Montoya said. “The gifts I’ve received from him were soul, compassion, faith in myself, faith in the music, and how to continue on. Albert taught me that blues is about playing from your heart. It’s music that you can’t chart. If your heart’s there, it’s real. That is what keeps the blues going. Fads come and go, but the blues always stays.”

After his stint with Collins ended in 1976, Montoya lost his way for a while. He worked as a bartender and was an occasional “weekend warrior” as a musician. But he did indeed keep playing, and in fact purchased his first guitar sometime in the late 1970s – he’d always played on borrowed instruments.

Then one night in 1984, lightning struck a second time.

There used to be a regular jam at a club on Sunset Strip that famous players used to pop into – playing alongside regular guys – and Montoya attended it religiously. One night, blues legend John Mayall showed up to celebrate his birthday. Montoya was on stage at the time and noticed Mayall, and ripped out a version of a song Mayall had recorded with Eric Clapton on one of his great Bluesbreaker albums of the 1960s.

Mayall was so startled by how good it sounded that pretty soon Montoya received another unexpected phone call. Mayall asked him to join his new Bluesbreakers – his guitarist, Mick Taylor, was leaving to join Bob Dylan’s band. Montoya once again hit the blues road, this time as a guitarist, and this time for good.

“It was amazing…I got to play with another one of my idols,” Montoya said. “I would never be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t gotten that call from John Mayall.”

Montoya quickly made a name for himself as one of the finest guitarist on the blues scene and cut three records with Mayall, touring with him until 1993. He then went solo and has since recorded six records. Now, with his upcoming record, I Want It All Back, Montoya is about to embark on yet another new chapter. He’s still ripping it up as a badass blues guitarist, mind you, but under the guidance of producers Keb’ Mo and Jeff Paris, Montoya has found his voice as a singer.

“Singing has always been like a necessary evil,” Montoya said. “Now I just get up every morning and Pavarotti my butt off.” 

His new material could be mistaken as a departure from the blues – it includes Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby”, for instance, the Marvellette’s “Forever” and the Penguins’ “Hey Senorita.” Blues purists may object, but these are Coco’s new blues – he’s injecting some new life in his own style.

“People need to understand that I will always love the blues, but I don’t owe an explanation or my allegiance to the blues or anything,” Montoya said. “I mean, I just don’t. I am really strong about that, because there is a lot of other music that has affected me in my life, and I’m the one that’s got to croak out of here when it’s time to go. And I am going to play everything that I can that makes me feel good, whether its blues or rock or whatever. But it’s going to have blues in it one way or another, because that is where I am coming from.”

  “This is an exciting journey,” Montoya said. “To my fans who love my guitar, I say come to me with open ears. The guitar is still there, but it’s not the only voice I have. Listen to me as an artist who is growing, and grow with me.” ER

Coco Montoya plays Brixton Sunday, Jan. 10. 7 p.m. See www.brixtonsouthbay.com for ticket info.

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