James Montgomery – A Musician’s Musician’s Musician

The River City Blues Festival in White River Junction culminates Saturday with a performance by the James Montgomery Blues Band.  The W.C. Handy award-nominated harmonica player will play an outdoor show featuring songs from his soon to be released album, along with selections from “Delta Rising,” the blues documentary he worked on with Morgan Freeman.

It’s been a few years since Montgomery’s been to the area. “We’re really looking forward to it,” he says.  “At one point that was a huge stopping point for us, we really can’t wait to get up there and see some of our old fans.”

“We’re having a ball right now and we want to show the crowd how much fun we’re having.”

The singer/harp player is music’s ultimate go-to guy.  Over a career that began in Detroit and Boston in the early 70’s, he’s shared the stage with everyone from Steven Tyler to Muddy Waters.  He’s worked with James Cotton, the legendary harp player who treats Montgomery like a son (“I call him “Dad”), and most recently toured with Johnny Winter’s band.

He is, to use a bit of a tongue twister, a musician’s musician’s musician, as this story illustrates:

“I was playing with Johnny in Europe,” recalls Montgomery.  “Just before we go on Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin) comes over and he gets down on his knees in front of Johnny and is paying homage.  He says ‘Johnny, without you all my music would have been different’ and ‘you’re the guy’ and ‘I’m so proud to meet you you’re one of my idols’.”

He also tells a story story of watching Eddie Van Halen try to locate a napkin for Winter to sign at the L.A. House of Blues, while fending off his own autograph-seeking fans.

As to how it feels to be the guy who’s asked to play with such icons, Montgomery is self-effacing.

“When you’re really playing … it isn’t you who’s playing the music anyway.  Your job as a musician it to try and lose yourself as much as possible and just let this energy and this music kind of transport you and the audience.”

“You can’t take it too personally because it’s not you up there,” he continues.  “If it’s you, then you miss out on a lot of it.  You have to let yourself go. “

His skills have earned him stints as a Jim Belushi-era Blues Brother, won him a gold record for his contribution to Uncle Kracker’s Kid Rock-produced “Double Wide” CD, and led to more benefit show band leader roles and concert cameo appearances than he can count.

In the early days Montgomery learned his moves from the best players in his hometown, guys like James Cotton and Junior Wells  “I had the opportunity to play with John Lee Hooker when I was 19.  Those guys were pretty accessible back then, they would show you how to do stuff.”

“When I started my first band I hired the best guys in East Detroit, because I figured no one was gonna pay to see a harmonica player,” he says.  “So one of the great things that I learned how to do, especially from Cotton, was to get up on the fly and just lead a band.”

He’s helmed a few all-star affairs since then, including a 2005 Vermont State Troopers benefit at Killington’s Pickle Barrel with G.E. Smith, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Johnny A. and members of Boston.  The musicians he’s sat in with trust his instincts – sometimes, it seems, almost too much.  One night, one of the greatest blues guitarists in the world simply took a mid-set break and handed things off to James.

“I’m sitting there with B.B. King’s band on a live broadcast with a horn section,” Montgomery recalls.  “I had like three seconds to count off a tune and keep the show going and lead the band.”

It’s a long way from his younger days.  Montgomery left Detroit to attend Boston University.   When Phil Walden of Capricorn Records heard him, he offered James a contract and a slot opening for the Allman Brothers Band.

“It was teach at BU for 17 thousand a year, or tour with the Allman Brothers,” says Montgomery – not a hard choice.

“When I was a kid growing up I was in a jug band, and I made a washtub bass, and I’d play in the basement with this harmonica rack that I made from my father’s model railroad thing.”

He’d listen to Jimmy Reed records (“he was easy to play along”) and think about his heroes – “the Stones and the Beatles, and more importantly for me, Muddy and B.B. and John Lee and Cotton,” says Montgomery, “and it’s gratifying to look back.”

“I mean, I spent New Year’s Eve with Mick Jagger, and had a great time singing with him.   We just sang Muddy Waters songs together for a couple of hours. I hung with George Harrison for a couple of days. I ended up meeting one of the Beatles and one of the Stones.  I ended up playing a lot with B.B. King and John Lee, and once with Muddy Waters – only once but it was the thrill of my life.”

“So,” he continues, “a lot of the things that I used to dream about when I was just getting started – a lot of those things have happened.”

River City Blues Fest Schedule:

Elixir (all shows free):

Tuesday, July 8 – Ricker Winsor (7-10 PM)
Wednesday, July 9 – Kurtis Kinger (7-10 PM)
Thursday, July 10 – Samirah Evans (7-10 PM)
Friday, July 11 – Dr. Michael Payton Blues Band (8-11 PM)
Saturday, July 12 – Johnny B. and the Goodes @ Elixir (8-11 PM)

Outdoors at Freight House ($10/advance, $12/door):

Saturday, July 12 – James Montgomery, Killborn Alley Blues Band (2:30-7 PM)