May 20, 2010

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Thanks to James Cotton
Blues musicians converge on Concord for tribute to legendary harp player
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

When harp player James Montgomery was finding his way as a musician, he met James Cotton. It was the late 1960s and Cotton, who’d recently left Muddy Waters’ band, was redefining the blues, introducing new elements to the raw sound that Waters and others had brought from the country to the city.

“He really paved the way,” said Montgomery from his Newport, R.I., home. “If a blues musician wanted to move forward and branch out from blues to soul and R&B, Cotton was the template for that.”

The legendary harmonica player was more than a mentor and a role model to the young musician. “Cotton calls me son, I call him dad,” said Montgomery, and the moves he learned in those early days on the Detroit club circuit are still with him.

“Ninety percent of my show is a direct steal from him,” he said with a laugh. “But as Peter Wolf said, ‘The amateur copies, the professional steals.’”

By the early ’70s, Montgomery had moved to Boston and his career was in full swing. Signed to Capricorn Records, also home to the Allman Brothers, he routinely drew thousands of fans to his gigs. At the time, a promoter decided to book Cotton as an opening act for a few of Montgomery’s shows — bad idea. “I made this stupid mistake of watching Cotton’s set before I went on,” he said. “After watching someone who could really play, I figured maybe I should just tap dance or tell some jokes.”

For the rest of the tour, Montgomery opened for Cotton. “That was the first and only time that’s ever happened,” Montgomery said. “He’s too tough an act to follow.”

This weekend, Montgomery will thank Cotton with a concert at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord featuring Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band, Billy Squier and other musicians who admire the harp player. With the James Montgomery Band backing him, Cotton will close the night.

The Boston Legends tribute show is similar to one Montgomery organized last year at Boston’s House of Blues.

“I kind of wanted to put together some situations for him where he would understand that he’s appreciated,” said Montgomery. “Too few blues musicians get the recognition that they deserve, and we just wanted to make sure that James Cotton wasn’t one of them.”

Longtime favorites the Fools will open the show, followed by Montgomery’s band and the Uptown Horns, a group of players he considers among the best in the world. “You can’t underestimate how great these guys are,” said Montgomery. “They toured with the Rolling Stones, they’re the only white guys to ever play and record with James Brown … they did the horn section on the B-52s’ ‘Love Shack,’ and they played with Ray Charles.”

Jon Butcher, who spent the past dozen or so years scoring television shows like Deadwood, Ugly Betty and My Name Is Earl after playing in the ’80s and early ’90s with Jon Butcher Axis and Barefoot Servants, will also perform. “This is kind of a welcome home Jon Butcher concert as well,” Montgomery said.

Also on the bill are Santana co-founder and percussionist Michael Carabello, bassist David Hull (Joe Perry Project) and original Boston drummer Sib Hashian. “Then we bring up Billy Squier, and if that’s not enough, Magic Dick and James Cotton,” said Montgomery, who has a great knack for assembling great bands. Last year, he did a show with Ace Frehley (KISS), Alice Cooper and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“At one point I realized that I’m not going to be the greatest harmonica player in the world,” he said. “My singing gets better every year, but I’ve always considered myself a band leader and front man. Over the years, I’ve been able to put together conglomerations of musicians.”

His forthcoming album features a strong cast of players — Joey Cramer and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Johnny Winter (“his best slide guitar since ‘Highway 61,’” said Montgomery) and old-school hip-hop artist D.M.C. contributing to an updated cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.”

The star-studded record — the cover is done up to look like a theater marquee filled with big names — is familiar territory for the harp player. Through the years, he’s been in the spotlight with many of his heroes.

“This should be part of a Wayne Dyer self-help visualization book,” said Montgomery, who remembers imagining players like Cotton, Muddy Waters, Mick Jagger and George Harrison while he practiced in his basement as a teenager. “Eventually, I’ve been lucky enough to meet and play with just about everyone that was on my list back in those days.”


Boston Legends
What: A Tribute to James Cotton
Who: James Cotton, Billy Squier, Magic Dick and the James Montgomery Band with guests David Hull, Jon Butcher, Michael Carabello, Sib Hashian, the Uptown Horns and The Fools.
When: Saturday, May 22, at 8 p.m.
Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 South Main St., Concord
Tickets: $25 to $45 at www.ccanh.com