Not all blues artists are strong songwriters. Luckily, the genre lends itself to interpreting songs, and the mark of a great blues artist is the ability to leave an imprint on a song, finding a way to exist in the words and music of another. On Hard Truth, singer/guitarist Coco Montoya provides a clinic on owning another’s songs (only two of the album’s songs are his own, and those two are co-written) without corrupting them.
Montoya is best known for his time in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers back in the 1980s, as well as for his stint as blues legend Albert Collins’ drummer. Given that kind of history, one might expect an old-fashioned sound, but on Hard Truth, Montoya displays a modern blues sensibility, more Stevie Ray Vaughan than Eric Clapton. “The Moon is Full,” an Albert Collins cover, has a heavier groove than the original, and features some serious string bends right out of Vaughan’s playbook. “Hard as Hell,” one of Montoya’s own songs, features more Vaughan-style bends, this time over a driving drum beat and a fantastic organ riff that sounds like it came straight out of the world’s grittiest church.
Hard Truth pays homage to other blues artists. “Where Can a Man Go From Here” is a slow blues with some Eric Clapton-esque vocal phrasing. “I’ll Find Someone Who Will” has a Bonnie Rait/Nick of Time bounce, complete with backing vocals on the chorus. And on “‘Bout to Make Me Leave Home,” Montoya sounds like Gregg Allman. But with Montoya, these nods to other artists never degenerate into soulless mimicry. That’s because his guitar playing is unique, with lots of big bends and energy, sounding passionate, but also controlled. It’s a fine line to walk. Many guitarists wind up sounding either too restrained, like they’re overintellectualizing their guitar solos, or too wild, where the solo sounds manic and wild. Montoya’s solos find the perfect middle ground, using a perfect beefy, dirty tone that doesn’t overwhelm the listener.
Hard Truth stands up to repeated listens not just because of Montoya’s guitar and voice, but also because of his creativity. He’s chosen solid songs, but his ability to elevate those songs with solid vocals and exciting solos lets listeners discover something new every time they listen.