The Ryan Montbleau Band brings feelgood retro funk to Lowell:
An interview with Montbleau band percussionist, Mill City’s own Yahuba Garcia-Torres
By Rita Savard
When you’re the percussionist of choice for Ryan Montbleau, you must be pretty tasty, and Yahuba Garcia-Torres is certainly that.
His fusion of Latin, jazz, funk, soul and reggae beats with rock stylings has helped Montbleau form one of the most airtight rhythm sections in New England along with drummer James Cohen and bassist Matt Giannaros.
In the world of festival-goers and music junkies, The Ryan Montbleau Band’s signature soul-pop and funky retro groove has earned them a reputation across the United States as a live band that never disappoints. And after nearly a year of nonstop touring for Montbleau’s For Higher album, one of New England’s most successful bands lands in Lowell Friday to headline the Summer Music Series at Boarding House Park.
For Yahuba, who calls Lowell home when he’s not on the road, playing at his favorite place to see a concert in Mill City feels a little like being a kid on Christmas morning.
“I became who I am today as a musician because of all the music experiences I had at UMass Lowell,” he says. “All of my favorite and best musician friends today, I met while going to college in Lowell.”
Yahuba’s father, Jose “Chiqui” Garcia, and his uncle, Irvin Garcia, both played in Haciendo Punto en Otro Son, a band that was famous in Puerto Rico in the 70s.
“At that time, they were to Puerto Ricans what Crosby Stills and Nash were here — folk singer/songwriter music with a message,” Yahuba says.
As a kid, watching his dad and uncle play while his mom ran the stage lights, Yahuba knew that someday, he was going to do what they were doing.
The first instrument he picked up was an upright bass. Then he switched to violin. But it was the music his mom, Paula Torres, always played — jazz greats like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane — that resonated and by the end of the school year, the saxophone became his weapon of choice.
“The real push to pursue music came from my mother, who still has the most unbelievable record collection of anyone I know,” Yahuba says.
In 1993, he enrolled in UMass Lowell to study music. From college friends playing impromptu jam sessions in his south campus dorm (the house was nicknamed The Rock Mahal Review) to standing-room only shows at clubs, Yahuba credits his time at UML for challenging him creatively and connecting him to lifelong friends.
Anyone on the pulse of Lowell’s music scene in the 90s knows the name Cotton Mouth. The rhythm and bluesy jam rock band with Yahuba on percussion, vocalist Martin Huq, Jason Moretti on lead guitar, Tim Koshanski on rhythm guitar, bassist Jason Samiago and drummer Jessie Wallace, packed in crowds at clubs in Lowell and New York City.
In the late 90s, Yahuba started playing with another well-known hardcore funk band from Lowell, Michigan Blacksnake. With Blacksnake, he learned the meaning of life on the road.
“With Cotton Mouth, we played in New York a lot, but this was different,” he says. “It was cramming in a van with a group of guys and spending weeks away from home.”
It was during his time playing with the Boston-based Percy Hill that Yahuba saw Montbleau on stage for the first time, opening up for Assembly of Dust.
“I just remember thinking, ‘wow, this kid is great,’” he says. “Ryan has a duality. He’s a soul rhythm and blues singer and a singer/songwriter American folk musician. Those worlds merge together really well.”
Again for Yahuba, all roads seemed to lead back to Lowell. Several months later, Ryan ended up doing a residency at the former Capos restaurant on Middle Street (now the Village Smokehouse).
Ryan and his band, who were fans of Percy Hill, recognized Yahuba and invited him to join in on their jam. From there on out, Ryan would call Yahuba as often as he could to play gigs until Yahuba became an official member of the band in 2006.
“I’ve been in over 100 bands, all excellent musicians,” he says. “But this is the first band I’ve played where everyone is focused on the same goal — and that’s turning our band into a small business we can live off of.”
In an era where musicians no longer make money off record sales, Ryan, Yahuba says, caught on to the change early and the band focuses on playing live shows and “earning its fans one at a time.”
In fact, few can hold an audience in the palm of their hand quite like Montbleau. The Peabody native has one of the most soulful and distinctive voices on the New England music scene right now.
His tour machine — practically nonstop across the U.S. for the past decade now — continues to draw die-hard fans and plenty of new college-aged listeners who seem to flock to Montbleau’s concerts like moths drawn to the spark of a flame.
Flanked by talent like lead guitarist Lyle Brewer, Jason Cohen on keys and his killer rhythm section, sonically, Montbleau’s music is all nuance and warmth, loose-limbed and monstrously funky. (Listen)
The band is only playing a handful more shows from now until December before taking a break from touring. Their next studio album is scheduled to be released in spring 2014.
After a long jounrey on the road, Yahuba says he most looks forward to lounging in his back yard and grabbing some noodles at Pho 88.
“I really just like coming home and mowing the lawn,” he laughs. “I find serenity in that.”
And when he finds time to relax, he also reminds himself how lucky he is to be exactly where he is now.
“It’s funny, people will ask me, ‘so, are you going to go for it and try to make it in the music business?’ ” Yahuba says. “I feel like I already did. This is my job. My goal has always been making a living doing what I love. At this point, anything else that can happen is just icing on the cake.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Ryan Montbleau Band headlines The Lowell Summer Music Series, The Brew opens.
WHERE: Boarding House Park, 40 French St.
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 2, park opens at 6 p.m., show starts at 7:30 p.m.
INFO: All ages show. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. For more information on the Ryan Montbleau band, click here, and get Boarding House Park’s summer concert line-up here. Ryan and the gang also play Wellfleet’s Beachcomber Bar on Saturday, Aug. 24.