It’s a common tale in the annals of contemporary music that a newly-minted blues fan first discovers the genre not from any of the African-American originators and descendants, but through the mutations played by white, younger, and often English blues rock acolytes.
That’s was certainly the case for the Coco Montoya, who today is among the best of the contemporary blues rock singer/guitarists. In 1969, the then-teenager from southern California went to see show at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles with Creedence Clearwater Revival and Iron Butterfly. But it was the opening performance of seasoned bluesman Albert King that stuck with him.
This was in an era – especially in California with promoters like Bill Graham and Chet Helms – where bills were far more eclectic, mixing blues, folk, and jazz with rock. So it wouldn’t be out of sorts to see a Freddie King or Lightnin’ Hopkins open for the Jefferson Airplane, or a Rahsaan Roland Kirk precede the Grateful Dead, or the entire Count Basie Orchestra warm up the crowd of hippies for Santana.
“That was what was great about going to festivals and concerts back then. I saw a lot of shows like the ones you’re talking about,” Montoya remembers. “You could go see three band in three different genres. And they did a lot of that in Europe as well. I wish we were doing more of that now.”
Coco Montoya and his current band – Rena Beavers (drums), Nathan Brown (bass) and Jeff Paris (keyboards) will be in Houston November 23 at the Heights Theater. He’s touring to promote his just-released ninth studio album, Coming in Hot (Alligator Records).
Its 11 tracks showcase Montoya’s usual impassioned vocals and meaty guitar sound on a selection of originals and covers. The title track (co-written by Montoya and Dave Steen) is the tale of a trucker who’s been out on the road a long time. And he’s alternately announcing to and warning his lover at home that when he returns, it’s no stop sign that will be on his mind.
As to what makes Coming in Hot stand apart in his discography, he says it’s the influence of producer (and drummer on the record) Tony Braunagel, who he credits with bring new ideas to the table. “This project has its own smell,” Montoya offers. “A little manure, and some big money! It’s fun, though.”
He’s joking of course, about the record producing “big money.” The days of artists of any genre – and especially contemporary blues – making a lot of cash selling physical product are gone. And like many of his Alligator labelmates, Montoya’s main source of income is derived from touring and what he can sell at the merch table on the road.
“We are the record store!” Montoya laughs. “You put something out there and then you have to get out there on the road to promote it. That’s where a good chunk of CD sales are coming from, at the shows in the venues.”
Growing up with a wide range of musical exposure due to his parents’ extensive record collection, young Henry Montoya took up the drums at age 11 and guitar two years later. Then, that 1969 show seeing Albert King made an impact on him. Fast forward a few years when the Texas-born bluesman (and longtime Houston resident) Albert Collins was playing a small California club that Montoya’s band had just been at the night before. When the club owner gave Collins permission for his drummer to use Montoya’s still-there kit, he was angry at first.
But after an apologetic Collins invited him to see the show, his passion for the blues came back. Soon, when Collins needed a new drummer, he called up the younger man for the spot, even as Montoya began to shift his attentions to the guitar. Coming in Hot includes a cover of one of Collins’ better known tunes of a rocky romance, “Lights Are On But Nobody’s Home.”
“If I can do an Albert song, and do it in a way to make it my own, I will. I always try,” he says. “Sometimes, there have been a couple of albums where it didn’t flow. And I never want to do his material just to do it. This one is one of his staples, and I wanted to give my shot at it.”
Photo by Ken Weingart/Courtesy of Alligator Records
In 1984, Montoya joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers as a guitarist (playing with Walter Trout in the lineup), and finally struck out on his own in the early ‘90s. His debut record as a bandleader, Gotta Mind to Travel, hit in 1995.
But Montoya has more to say about musical influences and lessons. Next year will marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan. And when its noted that Vaughan certainly was a lot of Gen Xer’s first exposure to a more blues-based rock sound, Montoya says it’s no different than his own path.
“That’s the historic way things have gone down. Before Stevie, it was Eric Clapton, and he always pointed behind him to his influences. That’s how I discovered all the blues guys in America, from the English players,” he says.
“The English basically shoved the music back to us. And it was in our own backyard! These older blues guys would play little beer bars in American, then go to England and be treated like kings.”
Montoya also gives a Texas shout out to one of his own contemporaries, Dallas singer/guitarist Mike Morgan, who he calls “one of the finest players you’ll ever hear!”
As to his own hero, the now 68-year-old Montoya recalls in the early ‘80s when Albert Collins took him on a driving tour of the elder bluesman’s old stomping grounds in Houston’s Third Ward. Which he remembers as an “eye-opening” experience.
“He was pointing out things and places he was when he was a kid. It was a whole different world from southern California!” Montoya fondly recalls. “That stands out to me most about Houston. And we had a lot of great gigs at Rockefeller’s with Albert and John Mayall and my own band there.”
The Coco Montoya Band plays at 8 p.m. on November 23 at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. For information, call 214-272-8346 or visit TheHeightsTheater.com. $20-$144.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.