They've Got the Fire: The Return of Montrose
Hearing the name of a legendary '70s hard rock band like Montrose mentioned in the present tense is bound to generate two emotions among its audience: hope, and fear. Hope, that it means what fans have been waiting for all these years - the chance to hear all those early classics, the ones that basically ignited the heavy metal flame in America, played again for the first time in a quarter century. Fear, that it may be what we've seen far too much of in the past few years from other '70s bands -- a quickie milk-the-audience reunion that draws a half-hearted effort from a group of guys who really don't care anymore.
After seeing the new Montrose band earlier this year at Petaluma's Mystic Theatre, I'm here to say: put away your fears and let hope rise again. For this is no half-hearted retread; it's a new band for a new era, and this time, that's a good thing.
The original Montrose - Ronnie Montrose on guitar, Sammy Hagar on vocals, Bill Church on bass and Denny Carmassi on drums - was in its day the ultimate stateside power trio with vocals, the American answer to Led Zeppelin. Their single effort as a unit, 1973's self-titled Montrose, formed the template for nearly every American hard rock band to follow, beginning with that virtual Montrose tribute band, Van Halen. Its 1973-74 golden era was over all too soon, sundered by tensions within the young, headstrong and indisputably passionate band.
So how do you recapture that passion, almost 30 years later? Most bands wouldn't even try. But for a Jedi master like Ronnie Montrose, "There is no try." There is only "do." And what he's done this time is to reconstitute the band with an entirely new cast of players with no history or baggage in the Montrose saga, only a passion for playing the band's music that's absolutely palpable.
That much is obvious from the first note as Montrose himself strides to center stage, acknowledging the surging tide of cheers from the crowd as he rips into the opening chords of "Rock the Nation," that immortal air-guitar anthem. The sold-out audience of 600 partisans seems to sense already what's coming - the real thing, baby, right here in your face after all these years.
And they are not disappointed. If you took the average Montrose fan and asked them what their ideal set-list would be, this would be exactly how it starts. "RTN" segues straight into "Good Rockin' Tonight," the band's rave-up heavy-guitar version of the Elvis hip-shaker, which segues straight into a double-shot of the chord-crunching classics "Make It Last" and "I Got the Fire."
By now the crowd is in ecstasy, realizing exactly what they're in for. Pat Torpey on drums and Chuck Wright on bass are a pair of hard rock pros who probably played the opening to "Rock Candy" a hundred times at sound checks for their previous bands (Mr. Big and Quiet Riot, respectively). They know and love these songs instinctively, and it shows in every move they make on stage.
More surprising is the new vocalist, Keith St. John, who looks like a 22-year-old cross between Jim Morrison and Robert Plant, his long dark curls, peekabo eyes and open shirt eliciting repeated hoots and hollers from the ladies in the crowd. You see how young he is and wonder if he's up to the task - and then discover that not only is he an obvious fan who's got Hagar's distinctive phrasing nailed, he's leagues beyond the average hard-rock shouter in terms of vocal talent. The kid has serious pipes, strong and sure and ready to rip.
And rip they do as Montrose himself leads the band through the wailing sci-fi blues number "Spaceage Sacrifice" before dropping straight into the party-time boogie of "One Thing On My Mind" (subtle, these guys weren't…). Next up is "Paper Money," a cut Mr. Montrose has long said may not have gotten enough attention from the old band. Here, it flat-out rocks, Torpey outdoing himself on the rumbling, extended intro, the crowd stomping right along with him until Wright and Montrose kick in with the melody. Bass and drum solos follow somewhat predictably, proving not so much that these are rock-solid players - we knew that already - as that Montrose is determined to be a generous host to his new bandmates.
Next up is the debut of a new song, a ringing, somewhat nostalgic tune called "'69" that fits in so well with the rest of the set that your mind begins to boggle at the potential for this band to generate a fresh new set of Montrose classics. The crowd welcomes the newcomer right alongside another taste of the old, the somewhat neglected anthem to attitude "I Don't Want It."
Saving a pair of nuggets for the big finish, the reborn Montrose closes out the main set with rip-roaring renditions of "Rock Candy" and "Space Station #5." The band runs right into a goosebump moment in the midst of the former, as after the first chorus, St. John gives up, grinning like a lottery winner, throws his mike down on the drum riser and lets the crowd sing the entire second verse note for note with no competition from him. The blistering "#5" arrives unadorned, no spacey intro, just Montrose himself slamming home those incendiary opening chords as every head in the crowd bangs to the beat.
By the time the band re-emerges for a two-song encore, the crowd has already guessed what must be next; there's only one song left from the original Montrose album to play. Their cries dissolve into delirious cheering as St. John moves center stage, assumes a wide stance, sticks his hands out in front and leans back as if astride an invisible Harley. You got it -- it's time to get on your "Bad Motor Scooter" and ride.
The night's closing words go to the man himself, as Ronnie Montrose explains that when he went about putting together the original Montrose, "There were three bands that I had in mind, three power-trio, guitar-bass-drums-type bands that did it for me - Free, Led Zeppelin, and this band." With that, they launch like a rocket into the opening bars of the world's first punk/thrash song, "My Generation." The whole band does background vocals on the choruses, straining to make themselves heard over the crowd.
As the band departs leaving the audience begging for more, it's hard for the long-time Montrose fan not to feel a little euphoric. Because it's clear this is more than a nostalgia act; this group is entering the game with fresh legs and fresh commitment, bringing with them a catalog of classic tunes that are the answer to 25 years of pent-up audience demand. It's hard to say what the upper limit might be for a band whose reconstitution inspires this kind of fervor… and that's a great place to be.