Guitarist Coco Montoya first came to my attention way back in 1997 when he was featured on Behind the Iron Curtain, the then-new album from John Mayall’s reactivated Bluesbreakers. I eventually learned that even then, Montoya was no newcomer; he had been taken under the wing of no less a legend than Albert Collins. He would remain with the Bluesbreakers for a decade, making his tenure as Mayall’s lead guitarist one of the longest in the band’s long history.
But of course Montoya had his own music to do, and by 1995 he had released his solo debut, Gotta Mind to Travel. Now in 2023 he returns with Writing on the Wall, his 11th solo studio set, and his sixth for prestigious Alligator Records.
Montoya’s style is straightforward and highly melodic. He can tear the roof off the sucker lead guitarwise, but his songs are more than vehicles for six-string fireworks: they’re actual songs. Writing mostly with sometime rhythm guitarist Dave Steen, Montoya serves up 13 tracks for varied electric blues. Don Robey’s loping “You Got Me (Where You Want Me)” is typical of the uptempo character of the songs. It’s one of only a few covers on Writing on the Wall (the other is a reading of Lonnie Mack’s “Stop.”)
Another choice of cover shows Montoya’s exceptional taste. Andy Fraser was bassist of Free, and co-composer of their smash hit “All Right Now.” Fraser’s 1975 solo album …In Yyour Eyes didn’t set the charts on fire; you’ve likely never heard it. It wasn’t even released in the U.S. But Montoya covers “Be Good to Yourself” from that LP, and he makes the tune his own.
Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Paris duels on lead on the title track, and some other Montoya pals stop by to add their own brands of sizzle. Paris’ composition “(I’d Rather Feel) Bad About Doin’ It” is a rewrite of “Fever,” but it’s fun nonetheless. Guests and sidemen notwithstanding, Coco Montoya is the star of this show, and his commanding guitar and vocals reign over the set.