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Music Review: Coco Montoya – ‘Songs from the Road’

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It’s hard to imagine many blues fans who aren’t already hooked on the powerhouse music of Coco Montoya. He first hit the scene in the ’70s working with the legendary Albert Collins, and after 1984 spent 10 years with the equally legendary John Mayall. Starting in 1995, he has been issuing a series of highly regarded studio albums, but the two-disc Songs from the Road is his first live release. About time. Not only does the package capture Montoya and his band at their best on stage, it serves as a perfect overview of his solo career.

Coco Montoya - Songs from the RoadMixed by the ever-present producer Jim Gaines, Songs from the Road was recorded at Seattle’s Triple Door venue in August 2013. Supporting Montoya were the indispensable Brant Leeper on organ, Nathan Brown on bass, and Rena Beavers on drums. While I might be treading close to heresy, I think there are times when this ensemble is extremely evocative of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. This is most evident in the three tracks from 1995’s Gotta Mind to Travel including the title song, “Love Jail,” and “Too Much Water.” The latter demonstrates Montoya’s fast-finger technique even while cooking on a slow groove. (“Gotta Mind to Travel” was written by Collins, and Montoya tells us “Love Jail” is another tribute to his former mentor.)

Without question, Montoya is a triple threat. With exceptions like “Gotta Mind to Travel” (sometimes spelled “I Got a Mind to Travel”) and his slow take of Buster Brown’s 1959 “Fannie Mae,” Montoya either wrote or co-authored most of the 14 tracks. On top of that, even if he had never picked up a guitar, his soulful vocals would have made him a first-class performer of his songs. One example, from 2010’s I Want It All Back, “The One Who Really Loves You” showcases the fact Montoya is an expressive and emotional singer. In this case, Montoya proves the blues can deliver the message even when performed low and quiet without fireworks. From the same album, the title song is one of the numbers featuring Memphis-flavored band vocal harmonies, as does “Hey Senorita.”

But Montoya is best known for what he can do with his left-handed Fender Stratocaster with a right handed neck. (His strings are upside down.) It’s true, as some are complaining, that Songs from the Road gives organist Leeper considerable solo time and these bridges can become distracting for listeners wanting guitar and nothing but guitar. On the other hand, guitar virtuosity and nothing but guitar virtuosity can become tiring on its own. Suffice it to say, axe fans get their money’s worth, even if much of the playing is subtle and primarily supports the songs and isn’t always intended to be pyrotechnic displays of fret work. But try “I Wish I Could Be That Strong,” a rocker that closes out disc one, or disc two’s “I Need Your Love in My Life” if hot licks are what you’re looking for.

So Songs from the Road has a good mix of rock, blues, and/or soul, with shifting tones and rhythmic approaches which makes this concert a nicely eclectic menu. To be fair, there are glaring problems with the packaging. On disc two, tracks two, three, six, and seven are reversed from the order as listed in the text. I thought it was just me, but then I noticed an Amazon review that pointed out the jewel case is not functional. I too have a case that fell apart partly due to a poorly manufactured spindle for the second disc.

Despite these flaws, if you’re a Montoya fan, you won’t want to miss this performance. If you’re a newcomer, you get samples from almost 20 years of Montoya’s brand of blues rock, which is as good an introduction as you can ask for. Not likely to become an “Album of the Year” on anyone’s list, still, the set captures an evening well worth spending with Montoya and his Seattle audience.

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About Wesley Britton