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Elastic Boundaries

Stretching the blues with Coco Montoya



He doesn't string his guitar like a righty to be different. It just happened that way. He never intended the nickname to stick. It just did. Coco Montoya never thought he would become one of the hottest contemporary blues guitarists on the scene today -- it just so happened that John Mayall walked in while he was playing an open mic back in the early '80s and signed him into the Bluesbreakers for the next ten years.

But Montoya's music career began long before Mayall picked him up. He noodled around with the guitar while growing up in California, playing left-handed on a right-handed guitar, but his real focus was the drums. Throughout the late '60s and into the '70s Montoya played drums with several local rock bands around the Culver City area. Then Albert Collins bumped into his life. When Montoya came to pick up his equipment from a club where he gigged the night before, he saw that someone had been playing his drums. A little upset with the club owner, Montoya voiced some anger and soon after got an apologetic call from Albert Collins who then invited him to his show.

When Collins desperately needed a drummer a few months later, Montoya got a call and hit the road for the biggest gig of his life. He spent the next five years touring with Collins. "I learned everything about drumming the blues when I was with Collins," Montoya recalls. "I was into all the blues drummers at the time and I especially liked Buddy Miles. But then in the late '70s music changed and disco came in. My musical career as a full-time drummer was over when I left Collins. I was pretty much out of business from '74 to '84."

Music never left Montoya's daily routine in the years he was out of work. Collins not only provided a place for Montoya to become a competent drummer, he also helped Montoya lay the groundwork to become a serious blues guitarist. While bartending to make money Montoya took the guitar on as a hobby and frequented the local open mics around L.A. "They call it woodshedding," Montoya says. "I had a lot of time on my hands and would just practice during the day and then go out at night and get drunk and play the blues. The blues has always been about having fun for me."

Having fun, messing around, experimenting, woodshedding -- whatever you want to call it, Montoya got good. And once again, Montoya happened to be at the right place at the right time. One night John Mayall came strolling in while Montoya was jamming, asking for a soundboard tape. When it was time to reform the Bluesbreakers, he gave Montoya a call. Next thing you know, Montoya, the drummer from Santa Monica, was filling the shoes of previous Bluesbreaker guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. He spent the next ten years recording and touring the world with Mayall learning all he could about the blues and being a professional musician. But like the guitarists who came before him, Montoya eventually felt the need to move on and do his own thing.

A virtuoso guitarist on the scene, Montoya has been pushing the boundaries of contemporary blues since he went solo in 1993. With four solo albums to date, Montoya will make a stop at the Colorado Music Hall this Saturday backing his latest Alligator Records release, Suspicion. Although the lyrics of his own songs are sometimes overly simplistic, his delivery is authentic and progressive. His fat, clean Strat sound trucks through a multitude of influences from rock to pop to funk, but always finds thick roots in traditional blues. "There are so many influences I've acquired over the years," says Montoya. "It's all in me -- from Magic Sam to The Bee Gees. If I don't play those things out then I'd be neglecting things that are inside of me. If something I like happens, then I put it in. It doesn't matter where it came from."

Although some people might like the blues to stay in a comfortable pigeonhole, Montoya is doing his part to push the limits, and he's making people listen. "The blues has to progress in order to survive," he says. "It keeps the music alive when people have to piece together where it came from."

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