Just Can’t Lose the Blues
The first time I saw Coco Montoya was in 1995 at the (now defunct) Cambridge (MA) House of Blues on Winthrop Street. 1994 had been a musical renaissance year for me. Working a one-year sabbatical leave “substitute” position in Brown University’s teacher preparation program, I happened to have a collection of musicians in the cohort I was teaching (these were primarily graduate students) led by an incredibly talented guitarist, David Ansbacher. In short order we put together an “MAT(Master of Arts in Teaching) Band” and I borrowed a drum kit from my old pal, the Klezmer Conservatory Band percussionist, Charles/Charlie/Chazz Berg (photos below). David was a blues aficionado and, given the medium’s relatively easy chord and rhythm structure, it became the staple of our “band.” As happens in so much of my life, this new interest led to my total immersion in the art form and I began to devour as much as I could about the genre, etc. Having come up in the 1960’s, of course, I was no stranger to the blues and was certainly familiar with the “Kings” (Freddy, B.B., Albert) as well as John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, et al. In the 1980’s Stevie Ray Vaughn had ignited what became known as “blues-rock” (a direct descendant of Jimi Hendrix, the progenitor of the “blues-rock” form) and that was the branch of “the blues” that hooked me deep and hard. As a result, I headed into Cambridge (I was living in Providence & Harvard, MA planning a new charter school as well as teaching at Brown) to the relatively new (opened 1992) House of Blues to see the practitioners at work. Two singer/songwriter/guitarists I saw that year, Tommy Castro and Coco Montoya, became favorites I still try to see whenever possible. Last night Coco performed at the Fairfield Theater Company in their Stage One venue, an intimate setting (125 seats or so) and I was once again reminded why I love this music.
Coco Montoya is a big man with the aura of a big, friendly bear --- but a bear with incredible dexterity! Montoya is a left-handed guitarist (as was Hendrix & Albert Collins) and plays his Fender Stratocaster upside down --- that is, with the bass strings at the bottom of the fret board. As a “normal” (right handed) guitarist, this is both baffling and amazing to me. The man is playing upside down and backwards --- and crushing it! What is most impressive about Montoya, like so many great musicians, is that he makes his playing seem effortless --- it just flows. Combined with a voice that can soar, growl, and “bleed” (in that bluesy way) the skill set is stunning to be in the presence of. Flanked by equally impressive musicians (Brad Lieber on keyboards, Nathan “Nate” Brown on bass, and Rene Beavis on drums), a Coco Montoya show is always an extremely satisfying experience and highly recommended.
I’m guessing that all but the blues-rock mavens reading this have no idea who Coco Montoya (or Tommy Castro) is. Even if you’re not a fan of this genre, if you are a rock and roll fan of a certain vintage, you have probably heard of John Mayall. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were, of course, the seminal 1960's British group that introduced the world to Eric Clapton, and then Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac’s first guitarist), and then Mick Taylor (Brian Jones’s replacement in the Rolling Stones) --- and, later, Coco Montoya. That’s heady company and it speaks to the talent Montoya has. If you’re not a fan of this style of music, however, you’ve probably never heard of Coco, or Tommy Castro, or Tab Benoit, or Walter Trout, or dozens of other exceptional musicians who are out touring 300 nights a year because they love what they’re doing! And that’s part of what makes going to the shows these people put on so much fun. How often do we ever get to see someone thoroughly enjoying his/her job? (Answer: Almost never.) So, beyond the pure pleasure of hearing the music, part of the treat in these shows is watching someone who excels at his craft totally thrilled to be getting paid to do this.
So, you may want to check the listings at your local music venues --- the small clubs or “lounges” in your town or the nearest city --- to see when these acts are passing through. As a start, you can simply go to YouTube to sample the wares, as it were, and see if you want to lay out a few dollars some evening when you'd like to spend a couple of hours purely enjoying how creative some of our fellow humans can be. In times like these, it’s a fabulous oasis and a wonderful reminder that some things are just pure fun. It’s the old “don’t forget to smell the roses” idea --- something we probably should all remember more often.
Leave a Reply.