Career bluesman Coco Montoya discusses his upcoming D.C. area shows and how he carved out his own unique sound after taking advice from Albert King and B.B. King to heart.
For a career bluesman like Coco Montoya, having the great Albert Collins as a mentor set the then-young man on a lifelong path to follow in the spirit of his late musical counselor.
“I was pretty green when I went on the road in 1972. He was like a father figure,” Montoya said of learning under Collins’s able wing. “It reached beyond the music. He was constantly looking out for me.”
Though Collins died in 1993, Montoya continues to keep his mentor’s music alive and well in his own output, including on the new album “Writing on the Wall,” which debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues chart. Touring behind the album, Montoya and his ensemble have two stops in the capital region this week, Oct. 10 at the Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis and then AMP by Strathmore in North Bethesda Oct. 13.
“You can expect some of the old songs that I’ve been playing all these years. I’m definitely going to do that interspersed with some [from] the new album,” he said. “After the recording process, now we get to go out there and find our ‘live’ way of performing some of these songs. We try to leave space for spontaneity—invent a version of those songs that particular evening.”
“Writing on the Wall” continues some hard-rocking blues, notably “I Was Wrong” and the shredding “You Got Me (Where You Want Me).” “Be Good to Yourself” would be right at home in pretty much any juke joint in Memphis, and “Baby You’re a Drag” can’t help but bring a smile with its dark humor. There’s also the titular track, which lent its name to the record.
“I let the album company take care of that, and they just decided to call it ‘Writing on the Wall,’” Montoya said of the song he co-wrote with Jeff Paris and Dave Steen. “It just made sense and sounded good.”
Guest artists on the album include Lee Roy Parnell and Ronnie Baker Brooks. Paris co-produced “Writing on the Wall” alongside Grammy-winner Tony Braunagel (Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal). It’s Montoya’s first full album in four years.
Indeed, not only did Paris help write many of the songs, he’s joining Montoya on the current tour, backing up his frontman on keyboards. The ensemble is rounded out by bassist Nathan Brown and drummer Rena Beavers.
“We took the road band in [the studio] and it was the greatest experience,” Montoya said of the recording sessions for “Writing on the Wall.” “These guys have been with me quite a bit over quite a few years, and it was the right opportunity and the right time to…do this [tour] with the road band.”
Montoya spent several years backing up John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, whose other famous alumni include Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood and Mick Taylor. Montoya released his first album, “Gotta Mind to Travel,” in 1995. It earned Montoya the Blues Music Award for Best New Artist, and he has since released another 11 albums.
His vocals are as sharp and bluesy as ever, as is his thrashing, left-handed guitar wizardry. However, Montoya, who just turned 72 this month, allows that at his age, he has to warm up a bit before getting deep into any significant playing.
“As you get older, things change [but] so does your attitude and your thought process,” he said of the yin and yang of aging. “I’m so glad to be able to be at peace with who I am and how I play.
“I’m not the fastest guy in the world, especially now. But I hope I’m still playing with some kind of finesse and some kind of soul. I think that’s the main thing: If it has soul, and you feel it emotionally, you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Asked if he feels the business is more difficult now than before, Montoya says that music was never especially easy, and that the public can be fickle with its loyalties to any particular sound—even the blues. Too often, he believes, records come out of the studios sounding perhaps too perfect, and thus lacking in a certain authenticity.
“Some of the blemishes and the little things that are a little off-center, that gives character to the music,” Montoya said, likening the overuse of studio trickery to the airbrushing of models in magazines today versus the Playboy models of yesterday who had a “blemish here and there, which is the beauty of a real woman.”
“I think [it is] the same thing for music,” he said. “You gotta be able to go in there and say, ‘You know what, it was a little wonky what you did there, but it’s so cool, we need to leave it in there.’
“That’s what I love about my [ensemble]. Nobody looks down on anybody for being imperfect.”
Montoya said because the blues is necessarily an artform that reflects the voice of whoever is playing it, the “secret sauce” is to make it your own rather than to try to precisely copy what B.B. King or Albert King might have done.
More than anything, play the blues because you must.
“The majority of us are not going to get rich doing this…so it’s gotta be the love of the music,” Montoya said. “Albert and B.B. King, they all told me the same thing: ‘It’s nice that you can imitate me, but now…take what I taught you and develop your own personality, your own thing.’
“If you do T-Bone Walker’s ‘Stormy Monday [Blues],’ do it your way; don’t do it the way T-Bone does it. We can listen to B.B. be B.B. But take the essence of B.B. and make it your own.”
Montoya was born in Los Angeles and continues to live there today. When out on tour, he keeps his iPad handy to FaceTime with his wife back in California every evening before going to sleep in whatever hotel serves as his home for the evening. When not playing or moving in between cities, he and his band are refining set lists and arrangements of their songs, as well as checking on their equipment. This is the real minutiae of being a rock star: those all-important in-between moments that make the gigs appear to the rest of us to go off without a hitch.
“It’s not just playing,” Montoya said.
Montoya’s mentor Albert King will have been gone for 30 years next month. Montoya recalls what a kind man King was, and still admires him for dealing with the inevitable prejudices he faced due to his skin color—which seemed to disappear from doubters’ lips whenever King hit the stage.
Montoya continues keeping the blues alive in his own way, and says that those who come to see his shows at the Rams Head On Stage and the AMP by Strathmore are in for a fine evening.
“I’m ready to come out and have some fun, man,” he said.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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