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Tommy Castro brings plenty of rhythm to the blues

Tim Parsons

Earning a Grammy Award is a lot like passing a bill in Washington, D.C. — personal connections and lobbying are as important as the content.

That’s an unfortunate statement for accomplished folks like Tommy Castro who formed his band in 1991, has 10 great albums and zero Grammys. Kind of like the title of the final song on his latest album “It Ain’t Easy Being Me.”

But don’t cry the blues for Tommy, he does enough of that on his own. And one thing’s certain: It sure isn’t sad. After all, how many people do you know who get paid to play?

“I learned guitar from my older brother and played with my friends,” Castro said. “I just did it for fun. I didn’t have any other aspirations. Everybody in my neighborhood got jobs. You always got paid for doing something you didn’t like. That’s why they paid you to do it. I was pretty sure that’s the way my life was going to go.

“I didn’t do sports very well, I wasn’t involved in other types of art, and academics and me didn’t get along that well. I did what I needed to do and got out of there so I could go play guitar with my friends. There was something inside drawing me in this direction. Then one day I realized it. I went ‘Oh. I get it.’ “

Castro approaches the blues from a Memphis soul point of view but he’s also got a lot of rock ‘n’ roll influences, as you would expect from a South Bay native. His lyrics often have word plays in the style of Delbert McClinton. But mostly, it’s Memphis.

“I just like the sound,” he said. “There’s thousands of guys like me who got the music through listening to records and the radio. We didn’t live where this was all happening. Even if you tried to not play this music you couldn’t do it because it keeps pulling on you.”

Castro, who targeted his gigs for small San Francisco venues, said a four-piece band was all he could afford. That’s why he plays both rhythm and lead guitar.

“What I really wanted was to play this soul music and I wanted to play blues and I wanted to be able to play rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “The four-piece band with the saxophone was the best combination. It was better than a four-piece combination with the fourth guy being a keyboard or harmonica player. A saxophone was the key, but it couldn’t be just any saxophone player. It had to be somebody who could play rhythm sax.”

Castro found his most appropriate sax player in Keith Carson, who he calls his right-hand man.

“Him and I would approach this music in a way that would cover all the bases as much as possible,” Castro said. “We might be doing some sax with Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett and try to cop that sound. And it would work well with blues and rock. I have to be playing rhythm (guitar) the whole time.”

Castro’s guitar style often contrasts lead guitar-dominated songs typically associated with the blues. He doesn’t get too showy with his musicianship.

“I picked that up from a lot of people, probably mostly B.B. King,” he said. “If you listen to B.B. he leaves a lot of spaces in music and I think that’s the hardest thing for a guitar player to do. It’s still hard for me to do sometimes. The spaces are every bit as important as the notes. You couldn’t have music without those spaces. Without the spaces it would just be noise.”

Castro is more about the songwriting and the song, not being the star. Which leads us back to the Grammys. Isn’t it time Tommy got his due?

“I think this is the year for him with that breakthrough record,” Blind Pig Records President Edward Chmelewski said about Castro’s album “Painkiller.” “It was produced by John Porter. He might have some pull with his colleagues.”

Porter, Castro said, is the most talented producer with whom he’s worked. Porter also has worked with Buddy Guy, Santana, Keb Mo, Los Lonely Boys, Taj Mahal, Elvis Costello and the aforementioned Mr. B.B. King.

A standout and funny song is an tribute to Albert Collins and his song “A Good Fool Is Hard Too Find.” On the track, Castro and guest artist Coco Montoyo trade off on lead guitar and lyrics.

The sleeper song is “I’m Lonesome and Then Some,” which seems like a natural hit but has yet to be discovered by radio.

“It has all the elements of a song that I think are good,” Castro said. “John Porter did an amazing job of mixing it. It doesn’t come from all the obvious places. Nice chorus and interesting play on words. The changes all work together and it lends itself guitar playing going places I don’t usually go.”

It just might land Castro in one of those places he hasn’t been before. Get your speech ready, Tommy.


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