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Scene & Heard

He still gets the blues

Montgomery carries on with heart, harp

By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2009
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Asking New England blues harmonica great James Montgomery who he's played with over a career that spans nearly 40 years isn't the right question - unless, that is, you have a few hours to kill hearing the answer. The more appropriate question is, who hasn't he played with?

"Well, I was kind of disappointed and sorry to see that the Captain & Tennille had retired before I got a chance to do anything with them," says Montgomery, dead-panning over the phone from his home in Newport, R.I. "The thing is, if you've been doing this as long as me and people say, 'Wow, how did you get to work with all these people?' I say, 'Get old.' "

Get old? Surely you jest, James. Sure, he's about to turn 60, but judging from Montgomery's zest for after-hours jamming and blazing, sweat-soaked performances, you'd never know it (although that reference to that cheesy '70s pop duo suggests he's been around awhile). But this is the blues, after all, where age and life experience count as positives.

"The blues is a feeling," says Montgomery, who'll be the featured musical guest Wednesday at a benefit for Right Turn, the Arlington-based nonprofit alcohol, addiction, and mental health services organization founded by ex-Del Fuegos drummer Woody Giessmann. "Not to get too academic about it, but Aristotle had this idea of catharsis - that you would identify with the art you were seeing. That you'd experience whatever Van Gogh was feeling when he made his paintings, or what Kerouac was trying to say with 'Mexico City Blues.'

"I remember when I was getting a divorce, I didn't want to put on happy music," he continues. "I found the most depressing stuff I could find to listen to, and by the time I was done listening to the records, I felt a lot better than I did beforehand. I think that's a real cathartic thing with blues - it purges you of that sadness."

Montgomery remembers being struck by a palpable sense of connection to the music as a teenager growing up in Detroit. "Other people in my school wanted to be an astronaut or president of the United States," he recalls. "I wanted to play harmonica." Montgomery haunted the clubs and learned from watching and listening to blues masters such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, and, most significantly, the legendary harmonica whiz James Cotton, who would become Montgomery's mentor and lifelong friend.

"I grew up at the right time," he says, "when you could walk into Junior's dressing room, or Muddy's dressing room, say hello, and pick up a pointer or two."

After a few years of joining and juggling different bands (he called one of them the Great Cosmic Expanding after dropping LSD), the singer-harpist settled on a reasonably straightforward moniker, the James Montgomery Band, while he was a student at Boston University. The group eventually signed with Capricorn Records and released its debut album, "First Time Out," in 1973.

Greg Sarni, president of Blues Trust Productions and longtime producer of the Boston Blues Festival, calls Montgomery "Motor City tough" - a talented showman who's "endured through failed marriages, changes in bandmates, and [changes] in the music scene," Sarni wrote in an e-mail. "He keeps rising up [and] still carries on the tradition of his mentors. James has done a lot to help promote blues in our area."

These days, Montgomery is making a new album, tentatively titled "From Detroit to the Delta." It features old friends such as Cotton, blues guitarist Johnny Winter, the Uptown Horns, and Aerosmith's Brad Whitford and Joey Kramer on guitars and drums, respectively. Montgomery also stars with country legend Willie Nelson and actor Morgan Freeman in a new music documentary titled "Delta Rising." He claims to be having as much fun as ever, and that's saying something. This is a guy, after all, who's played with George Harrison, sat in with the Allman Brothers, jammed with J. Geils, and played the blues with Bonnie Raitt.

Then there was the time Montgomery went back to his dressing room after a New Year's Eve show in New York to find Mick Jagger waiting for him - with two blondes (neither of whom happened to be Mick's then-girlfriend Jerry Hall). "It was pretty cool," Montgomery says. "He was giving me a Muddy Waters vocal lesson, and I was showing him some stuff on harmonica. Then a third blonde showed up."

BLASTFEST BLASTOFF The Whitehaus Family Equinox BLASTFEST: We know, it's a mouthful. But we can promise an earful and an eyeful too, when 19 acts affiliated with the Jamaica Plain-based Whitehaus Family Record label gather at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre March 13 for a spring showcase. (Listen to tracks from Blastfest artists at www.sendspace.com/file/74y6gv.)

The all-ages shindig, which includes the Many Mansions, Needy Visions, Lindsay Clark, and many more, kicks off at 6 p.m. www.whitehausfamilyrecord.com

Know about something cool on the local music scene? E-mail Jonathan Perry at roughgems@aol.com

JAMES MONTGOMERY Performs Wednesday at the Summer Shack in Cambridge as part of a fund-raiser for Right Turn. The event also features comedians Lenny Clarke and Jack Lynch. Starts with dinner at 8 p.m. Tickets are $100. www.right-turn.org

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