by G.W. Mercure
There’s something about the name James that seems to bind itself to blues music. James Cotton, Etta James, Skip James, Elmore James (and Jimmy Reed, technically), not to mention Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues,” and the ubiquitous “St. James Infirmary.” And who knows: Further research might yield more Jameses among the Blinds and T-Bones and Bigs and Slims and Tampas and Memphises, and all the other place names south of the Mason-Dixon line. It’s like if you’re born with the name, first or last, you will at some point have to make a decision about the blues. And then there’s James Montgomery.
Montgomery, who will be playing the Elks Music Hall in Eastham with his band on November 5, is a blues man’s blues man, a workhorse blues troubadour more comfortable on a stage than in a studio. The list of blues legends he has logged time with is longer than Sonny Boy Williamson’s legs (that’s the second Sonny Boy Williamson, for you aficionados) and every bit as daunting: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, The Blues Brothers (James Belushi era), and B.B. King, just to name a few—and those are just the straight blues folks. He’s also shared the stage with Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, The J. Geils Band, Charlie Daniels, The Allman Brothers, and many others. The players who join him in The James Montgomery Band reflect his resume. “The best in the business,” he calls them. “Pretty much the A Team.”
“We always put on a really high-energy show,” he says when asked what can be expected of his upcoming performance here. “First of all, we love that venue. It’s always a crowd that comes ready to party, ready to go. We like to show up as ready as they are. It will be a high-energy, danceable show,” he says. “Once you get there,” he adds. “Once you get through that one-lane thing [the stretch of Route 6 between Dennis and Orleans]
where some guy’s going 22 miles an hour in front of you!”
Montgomery’s familiarity with Outer Cape traffic comes naturally: He was born in Detroit, Michigan, but has adopted New England, residing in Newport, Rhode Island, and serving for a time as the president of the New England Blues Association. He hosted a popular radio program as well, broadcast on stations in Boston, Newport, Block Island, Portland, and Portsmouth. The syndicated show featured blues music and interviews with iconic blues musicians such as John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, and others. The show often explored the ways in which blues musicians were first exposed to and impacted by the blues. “Bonnie Raitt was at camp, and a counselor pulled out a guitar and played a Tom Rush blues song and that moment struck her,” he says.
That impact—something not as common in other genres of music—is nearly sacred to Montgomery. “We don’t want the blues to get watered down so that it doesn’t strike people in that really visceral way,” he says, reflecting on the future of the music. “Blues is cyclical, and it will always move into a realm of acceptance and popularity, and like a wave it will recede, and then come up again.” He makes a comparison with efforts by the Country Music Association to expand the reach of country and western music, ongoing since that organization was founded in 1958. “The Blues Music Association [founded in 1998 and since integrated into The Blues Foundation] did the same thing years ago. We kinda dropped it, you know, because ultimately we didn’t want to see the blues become pop music,” he explains.
If the future is cyclical, and who can tell where on the wheel we are, the present, for Montgomery, is bright. He cites a laundry list of contemporary blues musicians who move him: Larkin Poe, Beth Hart, Gary Clark, Jr., among others. “Keb Mo, even though he’s been around for 40 years or whatever, he always seems like a new act to me.”
“So, I see the blues as always being around,” he says. “I see it as always having a super-dedicated fan base. It’ll always be around and it will permutate and become jazz and rock and roll and hip hop and all the things that it has [transformed] into. So, it’ll continue and people who come to blues will continue to spin off into different forms of music. But there’s something about that moment that people have when they really GET blues, and they decide that they will follow it or play it or listen to it. There’s something about that deep visceral moment that will always keep the blues around. There’s something about that form of music that strikes such a deep chord.”
The James Montgomery Band will perform in a show presented by Payomet Performing Arts Center’s Road Show series at the Elks Lodge, 10 McKoy Rd., Eastham, on Saturday, November 5, 7 p.m. For tickets ($35-$45) and information call 508.487.5400 or visit payomet.org.