Coco Montoya has a stellar reputation as a blistering blues rocker whose fiery fretwork is tempered with taste and genuine soul. Originally a drummer behind the late, great Albert Collins, he switched to guitar after learning from “The Master Of The Telecaster” by ear.
Collins was very much Montoya’s mentor – more a father figure, really – and Montoya learned his lessons well. He followed that up with a stint in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Mayall, too, is known as a mentor to musicians – youngster Eric Clapton played with Mayall in his formative years. Montoya went out to release a string of well-received solo discs on Blind Pig and then Alligator Records, reaching what amounts to a pinnacle in the world of blues.
With nothing left to prove as a guitarist, Montoya’s chosen to concentrate on his vocals with I Want It All Back, his debut for Germany's Ruf Records, with decidedly mixed results. Rather than crunching guitar workouts punctuated with vocals, the emphasis here is on burbling grooves with Montoya’s singing front and center. And while there’s no particular problem with his vocals – he’s adequate, though not exactly remarkable – the collection as a whole is tepid, dragged down in places by weak material that, in truth, would probably sound better in other hands.
Montoya seems to be going for an uptown soul vibe here, treading territory that Robert Cray mines so well. The thing is, though, that while Cray lives in that world, Montoya seems to be trying it on for size, and the fit isn’t quite seamless. Things start off well enough with the latin groove of “Hey Senorita,” though those accustomed to Montoya’s blistering blues might be a little surprised. The title track, despite a catchy chorus, doesn’t really amount to much, and Montoya simply isn’t a strong enough singer to deliver this or the tune that follows, the soft soul ballad “Forever,” with real conviction.
Elsewhere Montoya turns to the likes of the usually-reliable Gary Nicholson for material, but the tracks selected here — “Cry Lonely” and “As Close As I Have Come,” — are both throwaways, riding unremarkable grooves and resorting to lyrical cliche'. The latter in particular is just plain lame, as is “Life Of My Broken Heart,” one of a pair written by co-producer and keyboard player Jeff Paris. Montoya’s good friend, Keb’ Mo, claims the other half of the producer credit while providing rhythm guitar throughout.
One of the big surprises here is Montoya’s cover of “Fannie Mae,” a classic with an instantly-identifiable harmonica riff. Here Montoya recruits one of the world’s best, Rod Piazza, for the harp part, but Piazza treats the tune as just another shuffle; while his work is impeccable, it lacks the distinct character that originally defined the song, though it remains the bluesiest track on the disc. Things wrap up with a cover of Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby,” all smooth and slinky but lacking any bite.
I Want It All Back is a significant departure for Montoya. And while there’s nothing wrong with stretching one’s musical muscles and trying a different approach to keep things fresh, this isn’t a direction that plays to Montoya’s considerable strengths. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly memorable, and Montoya simply fails to put much of a stamp on the rather unremarkable material.
Here’s hoping that next time out Montoya will either return to the blues-rock at which he excels, or that he finds an alternate musical direction where his musical mettle is a better fit. Unfortunately, this isn’t it …