Posted by

Mike Dow Mike Dow
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

edge staff writer

Share

Blues legend James Montgomery: ‘We’ve seen it all in Maine’

March 13, 2019
Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Legendary blues harpist and singer James Montgomery is set to bring his James Montgomery Blues Band to Portland's One Longfellow Square for a concert on Saturday, March 16, at 8:00 pm. Montgomery has been a fixture on the New England Blues Scene since the late 1960s and has performed with a literal who's who in music, including Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Mick Jagger, Aerosmith, Johnny Winter, Steve Miller and Huey Lewis. Montgomery: "I just love playing in the state of Maine; we've seen it all up there." Legendary blues harpist and singer James Montgomery is set to bring his James Montgomery Blues Band to Portland's One Longfellow Square for a concert on Saturday, March 16, at 8:00 pm. Montgomery has been a fixture on the New England Blues Scene since the late 1960s and has performed with a literal who's who in music, including Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Mick Jagger, Aerosmith, Johnny Winter, Steve Miller and Huey Lewis. Montgomery: "I just love playing in the state of Maine; we've seen it all up there." (Photo courtesy of James Montgomery)

James Montgomery still has the blues, more than a half-century after he became obsessed with the musical form.

The legendary blues harpist and frontman for the James Montgomery Blues Band says he’s counting the days until his band’s next appearance at One Longfellow Square in Portland on Saturday, March 16 at 8 p.m., with special guest Michael Corleto, a 16-year-old blues guitar phenom from southern Maine and Alivia Russo, an up and coming young blues artist from Ogunquit.

Since the 1960s, when a profound experience ignited an inner passion that led James Montgomery to a life as a blues man, he has performed with a virtual Who’s Who in music – including Muddy Waters, B.B. King, the Allman Brothers Band, the Steve Miller Band, Huey Lewis, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Winter and Aerosmith to cite only a few.

Montgomery’s blazing melodic harmonica skills combined with his keen instincts in selecting and fostering band-mates, has led to five decades of memorable high energy live performances and an impressive catalog of studio work.

A native of Detroit, Michigan, Montgomery befriended and performed with blues masters like James Cotton, John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells. He shared stages there with early punk innovators MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges before becoming a fixture on the New England blues and rock scene in the 1970s.

While attending Boston University, Montgomery formed a jam band in the basement of Myles Standish hall, with future guitar legend Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – later a member of both the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan.

Montgomery’s latest album is a self-titled tribute to one of his heroes – and another blues harp legend – Paul Butterfield. Full of smoking hot Chicago blues, the 10-track “James Montgomery Blues Band,” released in 2016, is a highlight of Montgomery’s recording career.

Montgomery has lived an incredibly rich and fascinating musical life and he’s far from finished. The man has more than enough riveting tales about life on-stage, backstage and in the studio to fill multiple volumes. I feel very fortunate that he shared a few of them with me for this story - a longer version of which appears on our website, www.TheMaineEdge.com.

The Maine Edge: You’ve been coming to Maine for a long time. What are some of the towns or venues in our state that stand out in your memory?

Montgomery: I just love playing in Maine; we’ve seen it all up there. The first place in Maine that we played was in Old Orchard Beach. We still had the band house in east Cambridge back then, so we’re talking very early days here. On the next Maine trip, we played in Bangor with Bill Chinnock (“Dime Store Heroes”). I loved Bill and he’s still in my prayers every day.

Portland has always been a big market for us, but we’ve played all over the state – from Mooselookmeguntic to Skowhegan and as far north as Presque Isle.

I remember we were getting ready to fly out of the Presque Isle airport. It was around dusk, and this flatbed drives out onto the runway with these kerosene pots that were placed every 50 feet on both sides of the runway. I said, “What the hell is going on?” Someone with the airline said, “The night plane is coming in here so we’re trying to light up the runway (laughs).” That was a long time ago.

One of my favorite gigs ever was one we played in Mexico, Maine. It was kind of a disaster but it’s still a great memory. It was an outdoor festival and the place was jammed with at least three or four thousand people.

Two promoters put on the show but one of them apparently absconded with all of the money. I believed the guy when he told me this, but to this day I don’t know if he was telling me the truth. He was pretty bent out of shape.

We played the show and the guy said, “I can’t pay you, but I have a freezer full of moose steaks” (laughing). So he cooked up a couple of moose steaks and then gave me 50 pounds of it that we packed on ice, loaded into the van and drove out of Mexico, Maine (laughs).

We played somewhere near Bangor that had a men’s room with a long trough, like you used to see in the men’s room at hockey games. My keyboard player was in there taking care of business and the guy standing next to him was wearing novelty glasses with the eyes popping out on springs. My keyboard player thought “What is the matter with this guy?” Glasses guy turns to him and goes (in thick Downeast accent): “The more people think we’re crazy up here, the better off we are!”

The Maine Edge: How does a kid from Detroit become a blues icon in the northeast?

Montgomery: I had been playing in John Lee Hooker’s band from the age of 19. There were riots going on in Detroit in 1967. John Lee Hooker went to Oakland, California, and I got accepted at Boston University. My parents dropped me off, and five minutes after they drove away, I met a guitar player named Chuck Miller. We started the Montgomery-Miller Blues Band and I took LSD and changed the name of the group to The Great Cosmic Expanding. When that wore off (laughs) we went back to our original name.

My high school band had opened up for Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the MC5. My psychedelic band was being compared to Frank Zappa and the Mothers.

My mom became ill so I moved back to Detroit to be with her and I started playing again. This was in 1969 or 1970.

We did a tour with Iggy Pop and we saw him invent punk rock before our eyes. You know that stage diving thing they do where you see singers dive into the arms of their adoring public? We were doing these outdoor shows where the fences were made of rolled up chicken wire and glass. Iggy was diving onto those fences. He would impale himself and then get back onstage, break beer bottles and roll around in it. The Sex Pistols were punky people but they didn’t come close to inventing punk rock. Iggy did a tour of England and that’s when the punk rockers started stage diving and spitting. Iggy was doing all of that back in ’69.

The Maine Edge: Your band has produced some wonderfully gifted musicians over the years. It occurs to me that you are kind of like the American version of John Mayall. He similarly fostered great talent and then gave his blessing for them to branch out on their own. You also give back by mentoring musicians just like your blues heroes did with you when you were just beginning.

Montgomery: I’ve always mentored young musicians, including many from Maine. I continue to do that with musicians like Michael Corleto - an incredible young Maine guitarist who’s played with Buddy Guy. And Alivia Russo, out of Ogunquit. She’s also played with Buddy Guy and she’s the real deal. You don’t have to be from New York or Boston to do well in this field.

The Maine Edge: Where are we at in terms of the overall popularity of blues today? It seems like we’re due – or overdue – for another blues boom.

Montgomery: I remember when we were recording my second album (“High Roller” on Capricorn Records, released in 1974). Tom Dowd (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cream, Derek and the Dominos, Allman Brothers Band) produced it and he had just come off that Eric Clapton record (“461 Ocean Boulevard”).

I remember Tom saying ‘Blues is a cyclical thing. It will increase in popularity, then it will wane, then it will be popular again’ and he was right. It comes back around. It happened when B.B. King did ‘The Thrill is Gone’ and Stevie Ray Vaughan did it with ‘Pride and Joy,’ and Robert Cray did it with ‘Smoking Gun,’ and Susan Tedeschi did it with ‘It Hurt So Bad.’

Blues has always had a big following in New England and I think colleges have a lot to do with that. The many colleges and universities here allow genres like blues, jazz, and classical music to thrive, as more young people come to the form and are continually moved by it.

Maine has a guy doing great things for blues music and many blues musicians. Paul Benjamin puts on the North Atlantic Blues Festival every July in Rockland. I love that guy and I love that festival. One of these days, I’d love to play it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Paul. He puts on one of the most important blues festivals in the United States and he’s one of the people I credit for spreading the word of blues.

Bonnie Raitt told me of the moment she knew that blues music is what she wanted to do. Her parents had sent her to summer camp, and one year, the camp counselor pulled out a guitar and played a Tom Rush blues song around the campfire. It hit her hard and she said ‘This is the music I want to play.’

All blues musicians have this moment that is visceral and deep-seeded. They just have to play the blues. It also happened to me when I was 15.

I’m not afraid that blues will ever die out. It will continue to move in cycles and there will be times when it increases in popularity. There will always be room for people to do well in blues.

Tickets for the James Montgomery Blues Band’s appearance at One Longfellow Square in Portland, March 16, at 8:00 pm, are available at www.OneLongfellowSquare.com .

Latest from Mike Dow

back to top