3/28/2013 - James Montgomery wrote “Intoxicated,” the opening track of his new album, for a Manchester girl he dated. But his love affair with the Queen City goes back much further.
“It was one of the first places we ever played outside of Boston,” he said by phone recently, recalling a roadside bar near downtown where the James Montgomery Band gigged in the early 1970s.
“I think it was called Sheriff’s — those memories can be fuzzy,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve always loved the town.”
In recent years, the city’s been integral in his resurgence on the summer blues circuit. The harp player and singer is a big draw at places like Veteran’s Park (“I hear we hold the attendance record.”) and last year’s Palace Theatre block party.
Recent experiences have exposed Montgomery to the wide array of local talent. To make others aware, he launched a series of shows at Milly’s Tavern with guest performers playing their own sets and jamming with him at the end of the night.
“I also want to give Manchester performers a chance to perform with a band on the caliber of the guys I have,” he said.
March 8 marked the third event, and as Kim Riley checked her levels on the stage, Montgomery talked about his plans for quarterly events, hinting at potential surprise guests in June and September. That’s a tantalizing thought. A lot of big names drop during a typical conversation with the energetic musician — he can travel in rich company. Steven Tyler jumped on stage with him a while back at a show in Massachusetts, and the Uptown Horns, well known for their work with the Rolling Stones, will support his band at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth on April 6.
Montgomery’s new record, From Detroit to the Delta, features some guest appearances from James Cotton, Johnny Winter, Aerosmith guitarists Joey Kramer and Brad Whitford, and DMC doing a vicious turn on “Who Do You Love.”
“Freestyle rap is one of the most underrated aspects of music,” said Montgomery, who met the former Run-DMC member at a Hard Rock Café guitar smashing. “If you can do that, you can almost anything.”
A cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Motor City Burning” is personal for Montgomery; the Detroit native witnessed the 1967 riots depicted in the song.
“I worked at a hospital as an X-ray tech to make money to go to BU, and all of a sudden we were quarantined,” he recalled. “Snipers were shooting at anything that looked like authority. … All of Detroit was dotted with five-alarm fires and the sound of gunfire. Any military veteran who saw that said it was no different than war.”
Montgomery toured in Johnny Winter’s band for several years, and affectionately calls him “my boss.” He wrote the standout track “Little Johnny” especially for the guitarist.
“I knew I wanted him on the record [but] we didn’t want to send him MP3s and have him learn new stuff. … It occurred to me to write a song as a tribute to him — kind of like ‘Johnny B. Goode’ but at the same time know that I was talking about the real guy.”
Between Kung Fu kicks and scorching harp playing, Montgomery rips through most of the new disc at the recent Milly’s show. Introducing his cover of Muddy Waters’ “The Same Thing,” he said the arrangement came from imagining how his pal Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top might play it. “He made a guitar from a plank on a shack – that’s the blues,” he exclaims, in full raconteur mode.
During the break, he signs copies of the CD and chats up fans. His optimism is contagious.
“People,” he stated with conviction, “will consider Milly’s a premiere blues destination in New England.