On the Road with Tommy Castro and the Painkillers
By Phil Reser
The Change Up
By Phil Reser
Photo by Bob Hakins
Four decades into a career highlighted by six Blues Music Awards (including B.B. King Entertainer of the Year), singer, songwriter and guitarist Tommy Castro still loves getting out on the road to perform.
What Castro and his all-pro band add to the blues is a consistent, identifiable sound that supports his original songs. The band reels off show after show that feels more like a high school party where everyone brought stacks of 45s filled with soul, rock n’ roll and blues.
Castro’s musical roots run deep. He was inspired by the sounds he absorbed while coming of age on the rough side of San Jose. This was Castro’s home turf, his stomping ground. It was a place where the street-tough Mexican Americans and the counter-culture hippies came together to drink, smoke, laugh, party and listen to tunes. The hippies had their blues and rock; the Mexicans, their soul music.
Those personal roots are reflected in Castro’s latest album, “Stompin’ Ground.”
You hear them in the autobiographical “My Old Neighborhood,” the socially aware “Enough Is Enough” and “Fear is The Enemy,” as well as versions of Elvin Bishop’s “Rock Bottom” and Taj Mahal’s “Further On Down The Road,” a set of 12 tracks with six originals and new versions of songs he learned as a young musician.
In 1995, he released his first record, “Exception To The Rule,” on Blind Pig Records. Many albums (and several labels) later, he recorded the critically acclaimed “Hard Believer” with Alligator Records, who he continues to work with today.
Changing things up from album to album has become a consistency for Castro. After 2012, tired of his Big Band sound on his previous albums, he left his horn section behind, forming The Painkillers (featuring bassist Randy McDonald, keyboardist Michael Emerson and drummer Bowen Brown). This created a lean, mean four-piece lineup.
“Guys like me want to do everything. I want to sing and play whatever comes into my mind. In my shows, you’ll hear me do straight-up 12-bar blues like B.B. or Buddy might do, but then you’ll hear me do something that might have a Latin or classic rock feel or it goes whatever creative way that song takes me. I basically follow the song. If I have a song that I think is good, I try and do justice to that song. I’m a blues guitar player. But I’m also a songwriter. When I started out, I didn’t really have any songs. I’d been playing in bars doing cover tunes. Suddenly, when I had to make a record, I just started writing without any knowledge of how to do it.”
Since then he has worked with some of the best songwriters in the business, including Jeff Silbar (“Wind Beneath My Wings”) and Bonnie Hayes (who has written songs for Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Bette Midler and Cher). “I write with composers who know what good songs are, and that might be the most rewarding part of the time I spend off stage. That’s the most interesting part of the job, when I get together with one of these really clever songwriters. And, I’ve realized that I can hold my own with them.”
These songwriters give the music Castro plays a variety in which each song takes on a different flavor. Though he says he’s guided by the traditions, he also writes and plays with a freedom to follow the will of the music.
“I see blues music going in many different directions,” he says. “I think it’s alive and changing and is constantly being reworked to reflect the moment we’re in. If you’re afraid of that and you try to stay too traditional, then you run the risk of not having any imagination; you have to be willing to let other ideas in.”
“Our music gives people a certain kind of accessibility to music. Guys like us who are on the road all the time playing in the small clubs or medium festivals give people the chance to come out and have access to something that’s real, not commercial or mainstream. At that level, people have a connection with us. Blues allows for that.”
Tommy Castro & The Painkillers
Sunday, Nov. 12
Feather Falls Casino, Oroville
Headlining the Blues & Brews Festival with Joe Hammons and the Growlers, RoHarpo the Bluesman and Selwyn Birchwood