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Coco in action at Bird’s Basement

Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips sat down with US blues guitar great Coco Montoya for a chat about his career and gear at Bird’s Basement, where Coco and band are in residency this week

“It’s just the blues,” says American singer, songwriter, guitarist Coco Montoya midway through a sublime guitar solo on stage at Melbourne jazz club Bird’s Basement. Yeah it might be just the blues but with Coco’s deft touch, delicate control of his instrument and such an innate sense of soul, those licks become something of rare beauty. Add the significant talents of his band members, Nathan Brown on bass, Rena Beavers on drums and the inspirational Brant Leeper on Hammond organ/keys and you’ve got quite the dynamic combination. To witness the Coco Montoya band in action is to experience a lesson in the blues, all fifty shades! There’s the fire of Albert Collins, whom Coco played drums with for many years, the fluidity of Clapton, the passion of Robert Cray, the simplicity of BB King but at the same time the creativity of a Beck or Hendrix. Coco has borrowed from them all but made it his own. Montoya is in Melbourne for a week, taking up a residency at Birds Basement until Sunday 27th November. I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with the amiable guitarist just prior to the first gig of his residency.

Curiously, Coco’s first real professional engagement was as a drummer in Telecaster legend Albert Collins’ band. Although he doesn’t see any real percussive influence in his guitar playing, Coco does believe his time behind the kit has made some kind of impact on him as a performer and certainly has given him an awareness of where the drums fit within a band’s overall picture. “People have told me that playing the drums probably has had some kind of effect on me,” he tells me. “I have never really done much thinking about it but it definitely helps me lock in with the rhythm section, which is key for any kind of music. With the drummers I’ve had in my band, you tend to know all the pitfalls. Even some of the bad habits I had, you know them. I’m probably hard on drummers for that reason.”

Where Coco really made a name for himself was playing guitar in John Mayall’s reformed Bluesbreakers band, a position previously held by guitar icons such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. I was interested to know if when he joined Mayall’s band, he went back and listened to the old Bluesbreakers albums for reference?
“I didn’t need to, I was doing that regardless,” he says “I mean, its part of everything … part of our blues bible, especially that first Bluesbreakers album with Clapton, the ‘Beano album’ and all those other albums … A Hard Road with Peter Green and Mick Taylor, they are mainstays when you are studying this kind of music. You need them in your arsenal. I was not actually in the music business at the time John called me to join. I was completely out of the business, just going out on the weekends playing. I thought for a minute what I was supposed to do was to emulate those big three. John let me know it was not what he was looking for. If we did Have You Heard or Little Girl or something like that, he definitely sat me down after a couple of tours and said, look I am not looking for you to be Eric Clapton, I am looking for you to be you. He said, you’re going to have to get past that and not think that way because basically he was re-quoting what Albert Collins had told me years ago, rule number one, blues is interpretation. If you’re not interpreting it in your way then you are really not playing it, you’re  just copying. That freed me up a lot. Tonight I have the burden… which is a good one … to play the songs the way I hear them.”

cocoguit1One of the characteristics of Coco’s playing which makes him so unique is the use of guitars featuring left handed bodies with right hand necks, which he plays upside down. “I use Stratocasters that were made for me that started in my second time with John Mayall,” Coco explains. “So I have had left handed bodies with right handed necks put together but I can’t take a right handed guitar, turn it upside down and play it. The knobs would be under my arms, it would be odd. The first guitar that I owned was an Ibanez Destroyer, a copy of the Gibson Explorer. I still have the guitar and I used it in my first year with John Mayall until the Strats which were made for me and I haven’t gone back since.”

Amp-wise, Coco has been using Steve Carr amplifiers, they’re a boutique amp company out of Pittsboro, North Carolina. He didn’t bring one with him but last night at Bird’s, was wishing he did as his playing was so fierce that he blew up the backline Blues Deville. However, a quick change of hire amps and he was back in business. In regard to pedals, his current set up is not too complex and certainly not set in stone, he’s always on the lookout for something new. “I use the Fulldrive, the blue pedal, not the Mosfet, the one before that (Fulltone Full-Drive 2),” Coco says. “I have a boutique pedal from a fella out of North Carolina as well, a Hoochie Mama. The rest is pretty much standard. As a guitar player, there are only a few others I have ever talked to who think they have arrived at a place with their sound. It always feels like a chase trying to find tone. I don’t think it ever stops. Even though I have been using Steve Carr’s amps forever, I am always willing and I think it is natural to always keep your eyes and ears open. What I have now, I’ve had for quite a while but I’m always open to hear other things. With pedals, I am afraid of getting too used to them. In my days with John and the early days with my band, I had a Super Reverb and Tube Screamer and that was it but as I progressed and recordings got a little more intricate, and I had to bring things in.”

Coco’s band, which appears on his current live album Songs From The Road provide a perfect example of a band working together in groove but also taking their own moments to express themselves and add individual colours to the mix. I wondered what factors were important to Coco when putting together a band.
“You definitely look for the playing ability but it’s not just about being a great player, being a team player is really important… somebody that really listens onstage,” he says. “There’s a lot of guys out there who don’t listen on stage, only listen to themselves. It’s a group effort to make a great sound so I am looking for that kind of maturity in a player. Those are the kind of things that are really important, you know, someone who is on their job and takes care of business.”

This is not Coco’s first trip to Australia, he’s been several times before and has welcomed the opportunity to come back and play. “This is such a beautiful country and we’re so excited to be able to come back and play. I remember playing once in a tropical rainforest up north and thinking wow, I am so lucky to be playing here. Then I looked up and saw this huge spider above one of the other guys in the band. I said to our Australia tour guy, is that going to be OK? He said, yeah if you don’t bother it, he won’t bother you. I was kind of relieved and said, so it isn’t dangerous then? He goes yes, it’s deadly … just don’t bother it!”

Playing a week long residency is new to Coco and his band. I wondered if there was a regular venue in the States which felt like home or where he may have cut his teeth as a musician?
“Not really,” he says. “The only place I can think of, and I only play there a few times a year, is a place in Santa Cruz California called Mose Alley, named after Mose Allison. Great people, known them forever. I played there back in the John Mayall days, so I hit that club a few times a year. We have never done this where we are in the one place for this many nights, so it’s all brand new to us. We don’t know what to expect. We don’t use a set list. We know the first 3 songs we are going to play and then I start calling them as I see them in my head. I don’t write anything down. John Mayall used to be good at that, we knew every song we were going to play each night. Every time I have done that, I have looked at the list and come up to a song and thought, it doesn’t feel like the right one to do right now. So the list went out the window.”

If you’re in Melbourne this week and want to experience a world class group of musicians, playing a passionate brand of blues, then get down to Bird’s Basement for a real treat.

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