James Montgomery ... live!
The first time I ever heard The James Montgomery Band was in ’77 or ’78 at the Silver Bullet in Moodus, Connecticut. It was a small club, but some of the best bands around played there including Max Creek, NRBQ, Fountainhead, Tirebiter … too many to recall for my aging brain. And you didn’t have to drive into the Hartford area to see them because of the Bullet. It was like Shaboo in Willimantic (which I’ve also written about), but smaller scale. Music sure was fine back then. Every weekend.
OK. Back to 2022. As those of you who read my column know, I’m a big blues fan. It’s my favorite music for a night out and dancing. Now James Montgomery is one of the finest blues harp players around, and a fine vocalist, too. And fortunately for us, Cathy Sherrill has booked him and a fine band of musicians – I’ll get to them later – at the Opera House in Boothbay Harbor on Friday, Sept. 16. There’s no better way to usher in the final weekend of summer, or any weekend, really, than rockin’ with James Montgomery.
I was fortunate enough to talk with him last week about his extraordinary life, music, and the upcoming show. The first question I asked him, ironically enough, turned out to be the one James asked the blues musicians on his former syndicated radio show, “Backstage With the Blues.” The question: Could he recall “the moment” he heard the blues and knew he’d found his music?
“With blues people there is a particular moment,” he said. “For me it was live blues harmonica with a jug band. I was 15 and it struck me really deeply,” Montgomery said. “The player was Chris Cioe who’s the leader of the Uptown Horns now. I’ve played with him many times over the years.”
Montgomery says prior to that experience, the harmonica was just something he played on the way to school. His other instrument was a washtub bass he’d made himself. He play both to Jimmy Reed songs on the radio. He says laughing, “Back then I didn’t realize the harmonica (and the bass) had to be in the same key as the song!”
Montgomery’s first blues band was during the high school years and modeled after Paul Butterfield. “I’ve always had the best musicians available in my bands. I went around the east side of Detroit with a Muddy Waters record and saw Jim Brown, Jim Schwartz, Chuck Miller, Brian Lange, played it for them and asked them to leave the cover bands they were in and join me. They said no. It wasn’t until I brought around a Paul Butterfield record that they agreed to join the Montgomery Miller Blues Band.”
After Montgomery played in the jug band about six months he got the opportunity to play with music industry legend Les Paul. Paul had heard Montgomery on harp and told him he played really good. When Montgomery mentioned he started a jug band, Paul spied a wine bottle on a table in the front row … the wine was poured out and Montgomery accompanied Paul on a tune playing the bottle. Montgomery sent me a photo of that moment and gave me permission to share it in this column.
After college Montgomery’s band signed a deal with Capricorn Records and spent 12 years touring with the Allman Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, Marshall Tucker, Steve Miller, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Frank Zappa.
“The main thing for me about all this is when I was a kid in my basement I had a fantasy about playing with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, John Lee Hooker, and James Cotton – all my idols. And I ended up playing with every one of them. All my heroes. Buddy Guy, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, and especially James Cotton, became lifelong friends.”
James Montgomery says he played up this way 35 or so years ago and came with Ed Rogers, who was still up at The Loaf at the time. “I absolutely love that area and I’m really excited to go back there again.”
And, I couldn’t help myself; I had to mention the supernatural residents of our grand old Opera House. Even told him the story about the Little Feat band member who signed the promo poster “I felt the ghost.” And I believe it. I was bartending during that show and saw how abruptly his fingers lifted up from the keyboard ...
Turns out Montgomery saw a ghost while he was in college. At some point, he spent about three years looking up all the places in New England with haunted rooms in hopes of seeing another one. It’s been a bust – so far. He says he’d “be excited to encounter a ghost there.”
So who’s James Montgomery playing with at the Opera House? On sax, Deric Dyer (Tina Turner’s band); Chuck Farrell on guitar, drummer A.J. Valee and Tim Archimbald on bass.
James Montgomery put out a Paul Butterfield tribute album a few years back and says the Opera House audience can expect to hear some tunes from that on the 16th.
“Yeah, maybe three or four of those, some traditional blues, original songs, and then finish up with a couple of surprises,” said Montgomery. “I’ve modeled my live shows after James Cotton and Paul Butterfield; we’re a high energy band. We basically come to kick … that’s what we like to do.”
Tickets on sale now! Call the Opera House box office: 207-633-5159 or stop by Wednesday - Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 86 Townsend Ave., Boothbay Harbor; or buy online at https://boothbayoperahouse.com. Advance tickets $25; online and at the door, $30.
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