Blues by Its Own and Other Names
Veteran blues, blues-rock and R&B singer-guitarist Tommy Castro returns to town, courtesy of the Santa Barbara Blues Society.
Tommy Castro and the Painkillers
When: 8 p.m., Saturday (doors open at 7)
Where: Carrillo Recreation Center, 100 E. Carrillo St.
Tickets: 722-8155, www.sbblues.org
By Josef Woodard
Northern California-based and widely popular blues man Tommy Castro last hit town nine years ago, hosted by the Santa Barbara Blues Society. The crowd went wild, as often happens at Castro’s shows. On Saturday, Mr. Castro makes an eagerly-awaited return to town, this time with a different band in tow, the Painkillers, and a sizzling new live album, “Killin’ it Live” as a calling card, hinting at what’s in store for the Carrillo Recreation Center.
Blues purists, who often get what they’re yearning for at the Blues Society’s shows, will have to bend a bit to accept Castro’s brew—a potent mixture of pure blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, shaped in a form he can call his own. He sings and plays with a powerful but supple character, and his bands—especially his current, leaner, meaner unit, the Painkillers, with Randy McDonald, keyboardist Mike Emerson and drummer Bowen Brown—make a solid musical pact together.
Born in San Jose in 1955, Mr. Castro played in a variety of bands as a younger musician, landing with the band The Dynatones and recording for Warner Brothers in the ‘80s, but busting out as a solo artist starting in the early ‘90s. Since then, he has opened for B.B. King, recorded more than 20 albums, for the Telarc, Blind Pig and for several years now, the Alligator label, and earned his place in the upper echelon of musicians making a long-haul career in and around the blues.
Mr. Castro spoke about the latest news in his world, including a new dedication to expanding his guitar chops, on the phone with the News-Press last week.
News-Press: “Killin’ it Live” is a strong album. Was there a particular brainstorm or catalyst leading up to this one?
Tommy Castro: Over the years, I’ve had different line-ups of the group, different instrumentation. It started with a four-piece with saxophones—bass, drums, guitar and sax. We added another horn player, a keyboard player, and I had a six-piece band going around for quite a few years.
I wanted to do something a little more guitar-driven, something a little bit leaner, something that would make me step up and make me have to play guitar more (laughs). We started this group called the Painkillers (in 2012). Playing together now for three or four years and with a couple of albums under our belt (“Method to My Madness” and “Stomping Ground”), we have a band. The energy’s there, the arrangements are good, the show has dynamics and it flows and goes in different directions.
(Over the years), I’ve been trying to keep it fresh and trying to not repeat myself and make a different kind of record every time out. That’s a good thing, but at the same time, it can confuse the (stuff) out of your fans (laughs). So putting this live record says “here it is. This is what we’re doing now. Come out and see us.”
NP: The album is a good introduction to your music, with the different grooves and elements of blues, rhythm and blues, and rock that go into who you are, musically. And although it’s mostly based on original songs, you end with Jimi Hendrix’ classic “Them Changes.” Was that an intentional final statement?
TC: We have so much fun playing that. That’s one of those things that just developed as we played it live. If you listen to the studio version, on “Stomping Ground,” it’s quite a bit different energy. I wanted to do it because that was sort of a theme record, about growing up in my hometown in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and that was a good song for that, plus I had David Hidalgo from Los Lobos guesting with me. That was a song that was in his wheelhouse, as well.
But then we started performing it live and we started messing with the arrangement a little bit and what we came up with, after playing it together for awhile, was pretty exciting.
NP: It made me think about stylistic definitions. What can we really call Hendrix, for instance? He pulled in so many ideas and styles, but he was a blues artist at the core. The same could be said of you, couldn’t it?
TC: That’s right. It’s tricky being a modern blues guy, because you learned from a bunch of really great original artists. These guys were all giants, the people that we learned from. It’s an art form and you don’t want to stray from that too much, but you do owe it to yourself and everybody else listening to you to bring something of your own to the party.
It’s tricky, balancing that. I’ve been navigating that all these years. I’m happy with what we’ve done, but there are people out there in the world with their own ideas about what blues is and whether or not what we’re doing is blues. I really don’t care about that (laughs). I know where I am and where I come from.
I write songs and don’t have any limits, saying “I can’t do that, because it’s not blues.” I’m looking to write a good song. We put them across the way it makes the most sense, whatever the song calls for. Everything we do is pretty firmly rooted in blues and roots music, and then we just try to create our own songs that give me some sort of my own sound or identity, but without straying too far. It’s tricky.
NP: It does seem that things are coming together for you in this latest batch of years. Does this feel like a good period?
TC: It does. A lot of the time over the years, I remember feeling like I was, in one way or another, just trying to get it together. This is not like other jobs. You go to school to become an engineer. You get your tools and your education and go to a job and apply that to your job. Then you move up the ladder.
This is a crapshoot, man (laughs). There’s no playbook. You can go to school and they can teach you how to make music, but they can’t teach you how exactly what you can do with it, once you learn to play. I have always felt like I was still working on this thing.
In this last three or four years, with this line-up, with this group, being able to play what I’ve done in the past—well, with this band—and continue to create new, fresh stuff that we also play well together, I feel like we can go out and do any kind of show that I want. Our audience numbers have been growing, I think largely thanks to things like XM Bluesville, which gives us a lot of play, and regular rotation on Spotify and Pandora.
So our audience is growing and the band’s in good form. I’m just “ok, I just have to stay healthy and get back, write some more songs.”