ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 18, 2003
By Steve Newton
Many guitarists can pinpoint a moment in their youth when they knew they were destined for a life in music. For blues-rocker Coco Montoya it happened in 1969, at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. He’d gone there to see Creedence Clearwater Revival and Iron Butterfly, but it was another act that stirred him most deeply.
“Albert King just happened to be playing between those two bands,” Montoya recalls from his home in Chatsworth, California, “and once he did what he did, everything else fell by the wayside. I mean, all my life, music to me was not a technical thing, it was just something I emotionally gravitated towards. But you hear Albert King and you just hear the simplicity and the sheer soul of it all, and the message is so easy to understand. It went straight to my heart as opposed to my head.”
A few years after Montoya was “transformed” by King, a second bluesman named Albert started helping him find his calling. A chance meeting with the late “Master of the Telecaster”, Albert Collins, resulted in Montoya being hired as his drummer for a tour of the Pacific Northwest, which included Montoya’s first Vancouver appearance, in ’72, at either Bacedas or Rohan’s Rockpile. (He can’t remember which.)
“My relationship with Albert went way beyond music,” Montoya says. “I loved him dearly; he was like a father to me. And just hangin’ around with him, you learn. I wasn’t very well educated musically, but he taught me a process I could understand.”
The next stage of Montoya’s tutelage in the ways of the blues came via British bandleader John Mayall, who happened to catch the guitarist jamming at an L.A. bar in the early ’80s. Mayall was impressed enough that he left the club with a soundboard tape, and called Montoya when he needed a guitarist for his latest version of the legendary Bluesbreakers.
“It was another situation of just being somewhere at the right time,” Montoya notes. “I was completely out of the business at that time, working at a pub bartending, and he called me up to join this historically incredibly famous band.”
As a Bluesbreaker, Montoya occupied a position previously held by some of England’s most revered guitarists, but he wasn’t concerned about anyone making comparisons. “I was just too carried away with the fact that, if I made it through three months, I could consider myself in the book,” he says. “I would be a Bluesbreaker! And that meant a lot to me, because John’s early albums with Peter Green and Mick Taylor and [Eric] Clapton are part of my bible. They were the ones that really turned me on to the blues, and then made me go back and look at where it came from.”
In ’93, after 10 years of touring and recording with Mayall, Montoya embarked on a solo career, which has resulted in four albums, a W. C. Handy Award for best new blues artist, and a coheadlining tour with Tommy Castro, which hits the Yale Hotel on Monday (September 22). He says the decision to leave the Bluesbreakers has had its pros and cons.
“Being with John was educational, but it was also a comfort zone, ’cause all I had to do was show up and play. That’s a pretty easy way to make a livin’: play, collect your money, and walk away. You didn’t have to worry about all the other things that come with running a band.”