Coco Montoya and Debbie Davies at Toad's, Denver CO
The Toad Tavern
April 1, 2009
The blues is something you either get, or you don't. To those that don't get it, it's just the same old chord progression running round and round like a NASCAR race. Some complain that the blues is primitive and repetitive. But so is sexy, and I like that too! Yeah, I get it. A slow blues tune with a searing guitar on top can repair the soul tattered by a lost love, painful ski boots or just everyday life. A blues shuffle or, better yet, some boogie woogie can breathe life into the dead. The blues can be life itself. So the double bill Wednesday night of Coco Montoya and Debbie Davies was a double dose of soul fixin.'
Montoya and Davies are touring independently, but their schedules coincided for a joint billing. They're blues compatriots, and both are proteges of Albert Collins, who acted as a mentor to both, and they each played in his band at different times. They've also played on each other's CDs over the years. Davies opened the show with a 90-minute set. Montoya followed up with a two-hour set, making for a blues-drenched evening.
Montoya paid his dues backing not only Albert Collins, but also as a Bluesbreaker with John Mayall. In the early 1990s he stepped out on his own and has been leading his own band ever since. His playing and singing exhibit the kind of prowess and polish that can only be developed by decades of performances. His authoritative vocals are a soulful counterpoint to his searing guitar work. He writes some of his own songs as well, giving him the musical hat trick.
Montoya is left-handed, which makes him look just a little different on stage than the typical right-handed guitarist. Also, he's a big guy, so the standard size Stratocaster looks almost toy-like in his hands. But looking closely, the strangest thing of all is that he strings his guitar upside down. The big strings are on the bottom. It looks like he originally took a right-handed guitar and just turned it over and started playing. Whatever the origin of the unconventional setup, it works for him.
The blues wasn't the only thing on the musical menu Wednesday night. Montoya threw in some funk, most notably "Put the Shoe on the Other Foot," which had a little bit of a James Brown sound. He also played several tunes that came closer to Rhythm and Blues than strict blues. He also added one that incorporated some Country and Western influences. The highlight of the evening, however, was his version of "Have You Heard?" That one was written by (and dedicated by Montoya to) John Mayall. It's a slow blues tune that appears on Mayall's Bluesbreakers album from about 1968 and features Eric Clapton on guitar. Montoya's guitar connected directly to his soul, yielding blistering and cathartic solos that in no way took a back seat to Clapton.
Debbie Davies opened the show with an inspired set. She performed with a trio, as opposed to Montoya's quartet. With only a bass and drums for backing, the spotlight was squarely on Davies, and she didn't mind one bit. Like Montoya, she's been leading her own band for many years, and she showed confidence, passion and prowess in her playing and singing. She spoke of her time with Albert Collins and his influence on her. Indeed, shades of Collins' "Cool Sound" were apparent throughout her set. She also mentioned some of her other heroes, including Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Gatemouth Brown and dedicated songs to them. She also demonstrated that the blues can have a sense of humor with a song written by her drummer Don Castagno about stumbling across a great deal on food while starving and on the road, "I'll Be Troughin.'"
Of course, being blues compatriots with a shared background, it was obvious that Davies and Montoya should play together. Davies came out for the last few tunes in Montoya's set and traded licks, solos and vocals that conjured the spirit of Albert Collins to the delight of the performers and the audience.