Coco Montoya serves it hot and bluesy
Blues guitarist Coco Montoya has a formidable C.V. It includes five years’ tenure, back in the 1970s, as drummer with Texas legend Albert Collins—who would mentor Montoya in playing guitar, and whom he’s described in his bio as being “like a father to me”. That was followed by 10 years as lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, filling shoes previously occupied by the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor.
Playing with Collins and Mayall had a huge influence on Montoya’s development. “With Albert I learned to feel my way through the music, to come from an emotional place, to feel with my heart and not my head,” Montoya tells the Straight from Los Angeles. “John taught me how to persevere against the negative things in this business. John has always been able to allow problems and obstacles to roll off his back like water off a duck’s back.”
Montoya departed on a solo career in the early 1990s—his first album, Gotta Mind to Travel, came out in 1995—but to this day, he says, “I honor Albert Collins and John Mayall in every performance. I take what they both taught me and apply it to what I am playing every night: that kind of homage is a natural process when you are influenced by people like that.”
Montoya’s range of influences doesn’t stop there, however. It is true that Montoya’s tenth and newest album, 2019’s Coming In Hot, is very much a blues album, complete with breakup tunes (“Good Man Gone”) songs of unrequited love (“Stop Runnin’ Away From My Love”), and a cover of Collins's “Lights Are On But Nobody’s Home.” But there’s also a soulful, R&B-infused, ebullient flavour to Montoya’s playing and singing, which gives it a uniquely West Coast vibe.
Our ears perk up when he mentions, by way of discussing that vibe, the influence of L.A.-based Chicano R&B band Thee Midniters—a group that was first pointed out to the Straight by Kid Congo Powers, who, like Montoya, has a Mexican-American background. Powers said of Thee Midniters that “their stomping R&B stuff is amazingly exciting and kinetic and warm, hot even.” It’s a phrase that could just as easily be applied to the aptly-titled Coming In Hot.
“Thee Midniters were a big influence on me going way back to when I was a drummer, and to this day,” Montoya tells the Straight. They weren’t the only Chicano rock band that left a mark on Montoya, either. “There are some great musicians in East L.A. and the barrios who are still carrying on the tradition like Ozomatli, the Delgado Brothers and Kid Ramos.”
Coco Montoya first visited Vancouver in 1972, he remembers, when he played with Albert Collins as a drummer in “a great show with Elvin Bishop and B.B. King at the Commodore Ballroom.” For Sunday’s show at the Rickshaw, he’ll be bringing his band (Jeff Paris on keyboards, Nathan Brown on bass, and Rena—pronounced “Rene”—Beavers on drums).
As someone of Mexican-American descent, who toured the U.S. with black musicians, Montoya has had his share of encounters with racism. The racism he saw directed at Albert Collins, in particular, “was very hard to take as a young man, because my love of him made me very protective of him.” (It’s a story he’s recounted elsewhere, of nearly coming to blows with rednecks when hearing the N-word applied to Collins, so we don’t make him repeat himself). “As for me, I experienced it in my early years as a young boy, but I didn't know what it was. I just thought they didn't like me for whatever reason. It wasn't until later in life that you learn that some people are very prejudiced.”
So given his unique background, playing with both black and white blues masters, what does he make of the question of cultural appropriation?
“When I hear people saying that blues has been appropriated, it’s usually from white people,” he responds. “I don't ever remember Albert or B.B. King ever saying anything about the music being stolen from them. Albert had very good friends in the rock and blues world, and if anything, white players did many things to help him get recognition. But to me there is no doubt that the blues originated from black culture. Like Willie Dixon said, ‘the blues is the root and the rest is the fruit.’”
Asked if there’s anything else he wants to add about Sunday’s Rickshaw gig, Montoya is brief—“Come on down and have some fun!”—but the Straight also must note that the opening act, Vancouver’s own Paul Pigat, will only add to the experience. “It’s just gonna be me playing solo with an acoustic guitar and yelping at the top of my voice,” Pigat says, but he plans to do something “more up and bluesy”, to fit the bill. Sounds like a fine plan!
Coco Montoya plays the Rickshaw Theatre with Paul Pigat on Sunday (March 8). For more information, see the event Facebook page.