Since beginning his career in the Bay Area in the 1970s, Tommy Castro has become one of the most consummate blues musicians currently working. Castro's body of work is an amazingly diverse collection of albums that are always tethered to classic blues and R&B. His most recent effort, The Devil You Know, may well be the best thing Castro has released to date.
From a tour stop in Memphis and in anticipation of Wednesday's show at the Kessler Theater, Castro talked with DC9 at Night about an early idol and how listening to his kids' music inspired him in new ways.
DC9 at Night: One of your earliest influences, Johnny Winter, is in Dallas the weekend before you play here.
Castro: Oh man, he was one of my big influences when I started playing as a kid. When I was 14 years old, I would listen to Johnny Winter records and try and slow it down. It was really hard to figure out then, but nowadays it's easy.
Your most recent backing band, The Painkillers, have only been with you since 2012. Why work with a new set of musicians?
Basically, the bass player [Randy McDonald] and I have been together a long time. He is my original bass player. He came back to the band in 2012. He had to take some time off because his wife was sick. She got better and he came back. We wanted to change things up a bit after 20 years of doing this.
Is 'changing things up' something you often keep in mind from record to record?
I had always, from one record to the next, tried to do something different. I think every time I put out a record, someone would say that it was a little bit different. This new one [The Devil You Know] is probably the most different. At the same time, even after we incorporated all of these new ideas and new energy, it still sounds like a Tommy Castro record. I didn't want to change things up to the point that it didn't sound like me anymore.
How did you do that on this record?
It was a long time between records and I was listening to a lot of music and keeping my mind open. I spent a lot of time driving my kids to school in the morning. They became teenagers and were listening to more music. I was listening to some of their stuff. That was cool because I found out my kids have great taste in music. Hopefully, some of that was influence from me. I enjoyed hearing the quality music that they liked. This was stuff I probably wouldn't have heard on my own.
Like who for example?
Jack White and the White Stripes. I remember the first time I heard that stuff, it didn't really grab me. But listening to it more and more, I started to get it. The same thing happened with Green Day. I never thought I would be a Green Day fan, but that is a very talented band. They are great songwriters. Through Pandora, I discovered Gary Clark Jr. I started listening to the Black Keys. Of course, I always like artists like Eric Johnson and Government Mule. I was listening to a lot of the contemporary, blues-based acts... One thing I found out, and this was really good news, is that a lot of popular music is still based on the blues.
Incorporating new ideas is something that is not common in the current blues scene. There are many acts that are content cranking out "Sweet Home Chicago" every night.
That is fine for them. In my show, I still do a handful of basic blues covers. That might be the thing I do best. I play [John Lee Hooker's] "It Serves You Right to Suffer" almost every night. That starts out as slow blues and kicks into boogie. But you are right; you can't keep playing the same thing over and over. Most of my records are more R&B based. I am in love with greasy soul music from Memphis... But I will always be a blues guitar player and a blues singer. Almost everything I do will sound like the blues in one way or another.
Wasn't John Lee Hooker's last studio performance on your Guilty of Love album?
Yes, that's the last song he ever played on, the title track from that album.
How did Marcia Ball come to be on The Devil You Know?
Marcia and I did a live album together. That was the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Revue. This new album has a lot of great guests on it. Joe Bonamassa is on it. Magic Dick [from the J. Geils Band] is on it. I am so excited that they all got to play on my album. It was sort of a wish list. I was going through the songs trying to think who would be great on each one.
How did you get so many of them together?
I just gave them all a card. I've known most of those people for years. I know that they are busy and hard to pin down. They made some time and it really meant a lot to me. We got some of them when they came to the Bay Area on tour. A few flew in and a few recorded their parts and sent them to me. It is my favorite record that I have made so far. I listen to it the most. It doesn't bore me.
Is it difficult to replicate the sound live without the guest musicians?
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No, no, we just do them our own way. I sing all the vocal parts myself. It works out fine. The only thing I can't live up to is the Joe Bonamassa solo. I don't think I can come close to that. The guy is amazing. We play almost all of the new songs.
You're playing the Kessler Theater when you come to Dallas this week. Have you played there before?
No, but I am looking forward to it. We are doing our best to recreate the sounds on the album. It's important to have a venue with good sound. You cannot just have the basic set up. We bring along our own sound engineer. We want it to come right and we need a man who understands these songs.