The blues and beyond

The blues and beyond
March 16, 2011
The Sun Chronicle

Tommy Castro broadens horizons on new CD
Tommy Castro knows what he wants to hear when he puts on a CD.

"When I listen to a record, I want to be taken on a little ride," he said in a recent phone interview. "You want to listen to a record all the way down. You don't want a record that you don't want to listen to past track six. I wanted this one to be one that people are going to be saying, 'What's he going to do now?'"

This "one" is "Hard Believer," Castro's 10th solo album and his first for Alligator Records. On this album Castro does versions of Bob Dylan and Allen Toussaint songs and lays out a little autobiography, while showcasing his soul vocals and stinging blues guitar.

The Dylan song is a rather surprising choice - "You Gotta Serve Somebody" from Dylan's 1979 gospel album "Slow Train Coming."

"It's one of those songs I've always loved," Castro said. "Dylan's lyric writing is amazing. As a songwriter I'm in awe of the stuff that rolls off his brain. The way they did it on the Dylan record, there was this open groove. I thought that should have guitar in it. I'd never heard anybody make a big guitar song out of it. That's what I wanted to do and what I think we did."
The Toussaint cover, "Victims of the Darkness," was brought to Castro by producer John Porter and quickly adopted by Castro and his band.

The hard New Orleans funk is different than anything the band has ever done, Castro said. So is the unclassifiable "The Trouble With Soul" that closes the record.

"That song kind of grabbed me," he said. "I kept wanting to play it again. It let me play a little different style of guitar. I stretch out on my guitar work a little on this album."

That stretching came at the same time Castro, who has been playing since age 10 and began his career in San Francisco bands 30 years ago, was taking guitar lessons.

"I'd played everything I knew, so I had to learn something new," he said. "I learned that it's fun to play guitar. I've expanded my horizons a little."

While re-emphasizing his guitar playing, Castro continued to concentrate on songwriting for "Hard Believer," writing or co-writing six of the 12 tunes, including the recession blues "Trimmin' Fat" and the clever, psychological "Monkey's Paradise," which he said is one of his favorite songs on the disc.
Even with its variety, "Hard Believer" is still in the Castro ballpark, a record that reflects his roots and the music he and his band love.

"I like experimenting a little," he said. "But we try to keep it to soul music, blues and rock 'n' roll for the most part, but still make it different.

"I've always been a soul man at the core. I'm a blues guitar player and a soul singer. I've always tried to put those things together. Those are my influences. I love soul artists, blues artists and really good rock 'n' roll."

"Hard Believer" is also a band record, not just a Castro showcase. That's how it has been since he put together the Tommy Castro Band in 1991.

"We're always a band," he said. "I've always considered this as sort of a group effort. I write songs, but I always have the band get involved in how we're going to play it and arrange it."

Castro has high hopes for "Hard Believer" and his new deal with Alligator Records. He had been associated with Blind Pig Records for decades, but said the time was right for him to move on to the powerhouse blues label.

"You want a label that can support you on the road," he said. "My living is made playing shows. The first thing (Alligator President) Bruce Iglauer said to me is, 'We know the place we sell records is at shows. So we spend our time trying to get people to your shows.' That clinched it."

As has been the case since he played in The Dynatones, the great San Francisco soul band in the late '80s, Castro's back on the road with the new record.

The winner of four Blues Music Awards for 2010 - including Band of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the year - Castro and his band are a solid draw on the roots/blues circuit. But like nearly all of his peers, Castro is finding life on the road to be a little harder these days, with clubs closing across the country and others cutting back on live music.

"I think it's a little tougher," he said. "But for guys like me, it's never been easy. We're used to it. I put one foot in front of the other and do the most logical thing and it seems to work. If I still try to put on good shows and try to put out a good record and do my business with integrity, I just keep moving. The bottom doesn't fall out."
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