ommy Castro's latest album, 'Hard Believer,' shows great leaps forward
Tommy Castro's latest album, 'Hard Believer,' shows great leaps forward
By Andrew Gilbert
Mercury News
Posted: 12:00:00 AM PST

Tommy Castro paid his dues, and now the San Jose-raised bluesman is reaping rewards, hitting one career milestone after another.

It's not just a case of rising recognition. Castro — who performs Wednesday at Yoshi's-Oakland — just keeps getting better. His vocals are more expressive, his guitar lines more taut and soulful. And his songs increasingly feel like timeless tales from the blues and R&B canon.

A heavyweight blues contender for more than a decade, Castro seized the genre's top title with "Painkiller," which won the 2008 Blues Music Award for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year. That year, he also made a jump from the respected Bay Area blues label Blind Pig to Chicago's powerhouse Alligator Records. Working with "Painkiller" producer John Porter, he delivered "Hard Believer," which has earned him another shot at Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, when the Blues Music Awards are presented in Memphis, Tenn., in May.

The organization also has recognized Castro's cumulative accomplishments with nominations for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year. He's come a long way from his days hosting the Sunday-night jam at the venerable San Jose club JJ's Blues.

"It has been hard work, going about my business, doing the next logical step," says Castro by phone from his home in San Rafael. "I'm fortunate to have some talented people around me and an amazing audience, people
who've been supporting me all these years. I think that just comes from sticking around and trying to get better at it."

"Hard Believer" is the kind of album that wins converts. While Castro isn't a guitar wizard a la Coco Montoya or Duke Robillard, or a vocal powerhouse like John Nemeth or Robert Cray, he possesses the full package as an artist and entertainer. Initially pegged as a blues rocker, he's actually a soul man who can readily evoke Otis Redding.

"Hard Believer" showcases the range of Castro's skills more effectively than ever. He belts out a rollicking version of Allen Toussaint's classic "Victims of the Darkness," and transforms Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" into a scorching blues rocker. A songwriter with a knack for vivid lyrics and punchy melodies, Castro contributes many of the album's high points, like the funk-driven opener, "Definition of Insanity," and the topically charged "Trimmin' Fat," which deftly sketches the current recessionary climate:

"They do your job in China for 10 bucks a day/ You better come on down and get your last week's pay/ Now I didn't lose my job/ 'Cause I know where it's at/ Everybody's trimmin' fat."

"The songs are the most important thing to me," Castro says. "Over the years blues has gotten a bad rap because a lot of the time the song wasn't as important as the performance. I think what I have to offer is some good material. I'm really striving for a good song, working to put together lyrics that mean something to me."

If his lyrics are more trenchant these days, Castro is also delivering them with more power. His recent success has allowed him to expand his band, adding two players for a punchier, classic soul sound. Building on his quartet with tenor saxophonist Keith Crossan, he added trumpeter Tom Poole and keyboardist Tony Stead.

It's no coincidence that Castro's combo has been nominated for the Blues Music Award's Band of the Year, and Crossan earned a nomination for Best Instrumentalist — Horn (though his savvy charts are as important to Castro's sound as his solos).

"I always wanted a band like that, but in the early days I could only afford a four-piece, and Keith and I developed a way to make it sound much bigger," Castro says. "Now, this is the best band I've ever had. We really do sound like the record when we go out."

Castro is still hitting his stride when it comes to recording. His diligence continues to reap creative dividends, and he isn't letting up. Porter is a strong believer that Castro hasn't yet realized his full potential.

"The best is still yet to come in terms of making records," says Porter, a studio veteran whose credits include discs by B.B. King, Elvis Costello, Keb' Mo' and Roxy Music. "He sets his time aside for writing material, but he works so hard on the road that the record is something that he does in between a bunch of gigs. I like to think 'Hard Believer' is better than the last one, but we're not there yet."

Castro agrees. "I don't think I'm where I want to be yet as an artist. I still have a ways to go as a guitarist, a singer and a vocalist. That combination has propelled us forward — not like a rocket, more like a really slow train chugging up a hill. We're getting there little by little. That's cool. I'm going to do this for a long time."
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