In the 1960s, the electric blues and psychedelic rock revolution consciously paid debt to many of the musicians who laid the groundwork for not only the sound, but the attitude of rock 'n' roll. At Bill Graham's storied Fillmore concerts, you could see Lightnin' Hopkins paired with the Grateful Dead; Big Mama Thornton opening for the Jefferson Airplane; Miles Davis on a bill with Neil Young; or even the great Muddy Waters sharing the stage with Quicksilver Messenger Service. I'm sure at least a few of the hippies even paired acid with moonshine.
Other than Derek Trucks, whose uncle Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers is jamband royalty, the names you see on the blues charts today aren't generally familiar to young rock fans. For instance, it's not likely you'll see San Francisco singer/guitarist Tommy Castro opening for Arcade Fire or Animal Collective anytime soon. With a brand new album (Hard Believer) that debuted as the No. 2 top-seller for blues albums beating out the likes of Robert Cray and Robben Ford you'd think Castro was rolling in the dough and becoming a household name. Then again, coming out of San Francisco with a name like Tommy Castro, you'd think Castro was a cross-dressing cabaret singer. Young hipsters just don't follow the blues anymore.
The truth is, in this modern era where most musicians make their money via live performances due to online downloading (in many cases pirating), it only takes the sale of a couple thousand discs to climb up the weekly charts. The road is where musicians of all kinds, and bluesmen in particular, earn their keep.
Castro, whose form of original urban soul includes a more mellow and direct version of Stevie Ray Vaughan's clear-toned wailing electric guitar, has been in the thick of a blues-festival and small-club-heavy career for decades, originally as a member of 1980s "rocking soul" favorites The Dynatones and eventually on his own. Castro has learned how to make big audiences feel like they're in the sweaty, exciting setting of an intimate and funky little club and how to make fans at tiny hotel bars like the one at the Boulder Outlook feel like they're literally a part of the band.
"We've been playing festivals all summer with the big band six-piece with horns and keyboards," Castro told Boulder Weekly last week. "It's basically the same guys that I recorded Hard Believer with. So whether it's 10,000 people or 200, we bring the same high-energy show."
Castro (who lives in San Rafael, Calif.) was born in San Jose, Calif., and picked up guitar at age 10, idolizing six-string stars like Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, who sits in with Castro occasionally these days in the Bay area.
"My hometown, San Jose, always had a strong blues scene," Castro says. "I was exposed to the music as a teenager and went to a lot of shows at the Fillmore, Winterland and the Santa Clara County fairgrounds. I stay [in the Bay area] because of family and friends, and it's just a great place to live."
As a young man, Castro eventually expanded his tastes to include the classic bluesmen, like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Elmore James; after his time with the Dynatones, Castro's impressive work as a front-man and guitarist helped him end up in a situation that seemed like a dream to him at the time: opening for King for two years and joining his hero onstage for the finale each night.
"Touring with B.B. King was really cool," Castro recalls. "I learned a lot. Jamming with B.B. made me nervous but very excited at the same time; it was like I was in a movie or something hard to believe it was really happening.
I've been fortunate enough to get to play with a number of my heroes over the years: John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, Taj Mahal, Carlos Santana, to name a few."
As for the reality the new download-centric music world, where sales of recorded music can seem pretty much like passing a hat around the room, the 55-year-old Castro was mum on the subject when I asked him if he ever feels like contemporary records can get slighted by fans and the industry after so much hard work and passion goes into them: "I don't get the question," he said. But Hard Believer, the product of almost a dozen talented and experienced musicians getting behind a modern blues sensation, deserves an honest listen from people who love the blues.
"I always try to make a different record from before, and I think we did that with Hard Believer," says Castro, whose 2007 album Painkiller featured cameos by everyone from Elvis Costello to Los Lonely Boys and won Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards. "I really love being in the studio [and] can't wait to do it again. I have a new rhythm section. We had the feeling that we were making a really good record the whole time we were in the studio, so it was fun."
Castro and his band recorded an exhilarating uptempo version of Bob Dylan's 1979 gospel-rocker "Gotta Serve Somebody" for Hard Believer, and it's probably the album's highlight. Castro's slick, fat Hendrix-esque leads and self-assured vocals temper the rhythm section's almost angry finesse one wonders just how good these guys have become from being on the road all summer. We'll find out at the Boulder Outlook on Monday and Tuesday.
On the Bill
Tommy Castro plays the Boulder Outlook Hotel on Monday, Sept. 21, and Tuesday, Sept. 22, from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. For tickets, call 303-443-3322.