More than 40 years after he joined Albert Collins’ band as a drummer, Coco Montoya says he’s got two good reasons for continually going out on tour.
“The love of music is it,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Plus, that’s what I do to make a living. That’s a couple great incentives to hit the road.”
The music is blues – and, like his mentor Collins, guitarist Montoya plays it with bite and verve on guitar that can be heard all over “Hard Truth,” his eighth studio album released by Alligator Records. Montoya recorded three records for the label in the 2000s.
The songs on “Hard Truth,” all variations on the blues, range from funky to gospel-drenched and include a steely take on Collins’ “The Moon Is Full.”
“I always take a good look at his catalog to see if there’s a song I want to do,” Montoya said. “His music is very valid and important to the blues. If I can do justice to the song, I look to put it on the record. If it happens, it happens. “
For Montoya, the Collins connection is more than just an appreciation of the music of the artist who was known as the “Master of the Telecaster.” Montoya, who started out playing guitar then switched to drums, got the call to join Collins after he’d loaned his drums to the band for a Los Angeles gig. Joining the group, he found more than just his first job as a professional musician.
“Everything is what I got from him, not just musically, teaching me how to live on the road,” Montoya said. “We were very close, a father and son type thing. I was a very young man when I first went out on the road with him. He kind of watched over me and educated me.”
After leaving Collins’ band during the disco-driven downturn for blues in the early 80s, Montoya was working as a bartender, figuring that his days as a professional musician were over. But one day he was jamming in a Los Angeles bar when British bluesman John Mayall walked in.
Montoya quickly played a Mayall song as a tribute and, soon thereafter, got the call from Mayall, who was looking for a guitarist to join his reformed Bluesbreakers. Montoya filled the guitar slot in the band that had been previously occupied by Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor.
In 1993, Montoya, who along with fellow Bluesbreakers guitarist Walter Trout often opened the band’s shows, decided to go solo. Three years later, he won the Blues Music Award for Best New Artist in 1996, the year after he released his debut album “Gotta Mind To Travel.”
Consistently making records, the left-handed guitarist had his biggest seller in 2000 with his Alligator debut “Suspicion,” and he’s continued to be a mainstay on festivals and the blues circuit for three decades.
Montoya began a tour the day “Hard Truth” was released, and his sets are filled with songs from the new disc.
“That’s the idea, you tour to support the record,” he said. “We want to play as many as we can off the album. We’re playing quite a few songs now. Everything has been real positive. It seems to be going over well.”
Montoya says he’s starting to see some younger faces at his show and the festivals alongside the older faces of those who discovered the blues in the ’60s and ’70s. That, he said, is good for the future of the blues.
“Like everybody else who plays roots music and blues, we’re hoping for rediscovery by youth,” he said. “They’re the people who get up and go out and see music. I think that’s very possible. … It’s starting to make movements toward that. It’s new to them and the pop thing’s getting tired. They’re starting to rediscover it. It’s a good place to be.”
And he’s hoping that some of the young people will follow in his footsteps as well, taking inspiration from the music they hear coming on stage to decide they want to play the blues – just like Montoya did after seeing Albert King in the late 60s
“You’ve got to pass it along,” he said. “Once I’ve gone, somebody else has to do it. You learn from the people before you and hopefully pass it along.”