S’been a long education …

A few weeks back, when I heard that ’70s muscle-rock icon Ronnie Montrose was playing the Roadhouse in gritty Robla, my curiosity kicked in. Sure, the guy’s in his 50s and hasn’t put out a straight-ahead rocker in ages.

But something told me this show might be worth $10. After several fruitless calls, I found the perfect companion for an adventure to Sketchville—my audaciously scruffy friend Harold. When we arrived, the bar was stifling and the warm-up band still blasting, so we took our beers out back to eavesdrop on slurred conversations.

When Montrose walked on stage, his tame appearance gave no hint of the sonic assault he’d planned for us. Slightly balding, sporting modest garb and a pair of Topsiders, he looked more like a high-school math teacher than a rawk guitar legend.

But as soon as he ripped into the opening chords of the air-guitar classic “Rock the Nation,” it was clear that tonight there would be no arty guitar compositions, no quiet interludes, no nonsense—just a nonstop barrage of meaty cuts culled from his landmark ’70s albums. “Rock Candy,” “I Got the Fire,” “Space Station No. Five”—this was mullet rock at its best.

By dusting off all the staples from his prime rock catalog, Montrose seemed to be making some kind of statement. But to whom? Fans, visibly stunned by how great he sounded nearly three decades after the release of the seminal Montrose album, which helped define a generation of American butt-rock? Himself?

Either way, Montrose played with the trademark raw energy, melodic deftness and technical dexterity he’s displayed ever since his early days backing Van Morrison and Edgar Winter. Supporting him was a young bass player/vocalist who could sing circles around ’70s Montrose shouter Sammy Hagar and a drummer who beat the skins with a precision and ferocity rarely seen these days.

Though only their first gig together, the trio hit all its marks, stayed steady through extended improvs and pulled off several technically challenging hooks that most veteran rock bands wouldn’t even try. Most important, the cheese factor and macho posturing was kept to a minimum.

Raucous hoots greeted the end of every tune, and the two younger players were obviously affected by the adulation. Once, between songs, the drummer pounced down from the riser and grabbed the mike: “Man, I remember sitting in my bedroom taking bong hits and listening to this stuff! Now, I’m playing with The Man!” A look of genuine surprise and embarrassment crossed Montrose’s face. Then he cracked a paternal smile, gently scolding drum dude to get back behind his kit.

Later, when the crowd of around 250 bleary-eyed souls chanted his name after a particularly rousing solo, Montrose shuffled up to the mike and sheepishly admitted: “Not bad for a grandfather of four, eh?”

Not bad. Now get on that bad motor scooter and ride.