Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
By Rex Bartholomew
Coco Montoya is a modern blues master, so every time he puts new material out there his fans’ and critics’ expectations are high. With his latest album, Hard Truth, Montoya meets these expectations with a combination of his talent and his ability to make all the right decisions for the production. These choices included putting together his setlist, selecting the musicians to work with, and hooking up with the best studio and engineers. It certainly helps that he is once again working with Chicago’s own Alligator Records, a label that defines the genre for many blues aficionados.
If you are a fan, you probably already know the story of his career, but Coco has gotten where he is through hard work and from playing for decades alongside the best in the business. Growing up in Los Angeles, Montoya originally started out on drums, which is how he got his break with Albert Collins’ band. The Master of the Telecaster took Coco under his wing, and the duo would spend their down time jamming on their guitars, which is like going to a master’s clinic every day. After five years with Collins, Montoya found a decade-long job with John Mayall, filling the shoes of former Bluesbreakers such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green, and sharing the stage with the magnificent guitarist Walter Trout.
By the 1990s, Coco Montoya decided that it was time to set out on his own, which was a big step to where he is now. Today, his guitar and vocal chops are the best they have ever been, and he has an all-star band backing him up on Hard Truth, so get ready for some name-dropping! This Los Angeles-based crew includes keyboardist Mike Finnigan (Taj Mahal, Etta James, Jimi Hendrix), bassist Bob Glaub (Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan), and drummer Tony Braunagel (Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Burdon), as well as killer rhythm guitarists Billy Watts and Johnny Lee Schell. If that is not enough, his backing singers include a pair of in-demand solo artists: Deb Ryder and Teresa James.
There are eleven tracks on Hard Truth, and most of them are covers, though not the usual suspects that bluesmen usually turn to. Most of the songs in this set are modern tunes that have been reworked to fit Coco’s guitar and vocal style, but they still retain all the flavor of the originals. The opener, “Before the Bullets Fly,” is heavy blues-rock with guitar arrangements that are hotter than in the Allman Brothers’ 1988 original. This is followed up by a fun romp, “I Want to Shout About It,” which was first cut by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters in 1990. Like the original, this version features amazing guitar work, and Coco’s hearty vocals seal the deal.
The other tunes include a mixture of blues and rock genres, including John Hiatt’s “Old Habits are Hard to Break,” Bonnie Raitt’s classic “’Bout to Make Me Leave Home,” and Johnny Taylor’s “Where Can a Man Go From Here?” These are all well interpreted, but one of the standouts has to be Teresa James’ “I’ll Find Someone Who Will,” which features James, Ryder, and Watts on backing vocals. Montoya’s guitar takes a backseat to his vocals on this track (with the exception of a couple of killer breaks), and the backing vocals and Finnigans’ tasteful organ fills help to pull everything together.
Montoya has not forgotten where he came from, and as usual he has included one Albert Collins song on the album; this time he chose “The Moon is Full” from the Grammy winning Showdown! album from Collins, Cray, and Copeland. None of the original funk is lost (thanks to the fine backline of Braunagel and Glaub), and Coco’s guitar work is nothing but smooth and effortless on this worthy homage to his mentor.
There are also a handful of original tunes worked into the set, with writing credit going to Montoya and Dave Steen. These include “Lost in the Bottle,” a country rocker featuring Nashville legend Lee Roy Parnell on searing slide guitar, the tight blues-rock of “Hard as Hell” and the closer, “Truth Be Told.” The latter is a complex tune with intricate guitar parts and a laid back vibe that works well with its pensive lyrics. This is one of the best songs on the album, and is a wonderful way to bring things to a close.
This project has a clean and full sound thanks to the hard work of producer Tony Braunagel and engineer Johnny Lee Schell. This duo has been running many fine blues artists through Schell’s Ultratone Studios in Burbank, California, and they have been consistently getting outstanding results. Hard Truth is no exception and it is definitely worth your time, so it would be a great idea to pick up a copy and give it a few listens - it is complex, and each time it is played it is easy to find something new to enjoy. Also, Coco Montoya is hitting the road to support this album, so be sure to head over to his website at www.cocomontoyaband.com to see if he is playing anywhere near you soon. If you are east of the Mississippi, chances are good that he has a show somewhere near you this spring!