New blues

Tommy Castro switches things up with rockin’ new band and album

Tommy Castro (right) steps out with his new backup band, The Painkillers.

Tommy Castro (right) steps out with his new backup band, The Painkillers.

photo by steve sherman

Tommy Castro and The Pain Killers perform Thursday, March 27, 7:30 p.m., at the Big Room.
Tickets: $20.

Sierra Nevada Big Room
1075 E. 20th St.

“I have every intention of going out like John Lee Hooker,” said Tommy Castro in a recent phone interview. The Bay Area bluesman went on to say that Hooker kept playing all the way to the end, even recording with Castro a few days before his death at the age of 83. “He was always moving forward. He didn’t resist something new coming along.”

For him to keep moving forward, however, Castro realized that he needed to change up the brand of stinging, horn-driven blues he’d been delivering for decades. So, a couple years ago, he decided to mix things up.

“If I intend to do this for another 20 years, I’ve got to keep it fresh,” Castro said. “I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut. I did start to feel I was in danger of that and getting stale a little. So I thought, ‘Things are going to change.’

“I had a vision, an idea. I want to stay fresh and current,” he said. “I made these tough decisions. … Not everybody was thrilled with the idea. But what I had in my mind is a record like this and a sound like this.”

The tough decisions began in 2012 when Castro stripped down his band, eliminating the horn section and putting together a taut three-piece backing band called The Painkillers, anchored by Tommy Castro Band original Randy McDonald on bass. Drummer David Tucker and keyboardist James Pace round out the lineup.

When it came time to write the songs that turned into The Devil You Know, the band’s recently released Alligator Records disc, Castro challenged himself to compose with new rhythms and sounds, using the rhythm of the drums to drive the songwriting and set the tone for the recordings.

Many of those songs wound up with a raw, driving rock edge. Even slow, rock-rooted grinders like “She Wanted To Give It to Me” are something of a departure for Castro.

“I remember listening to Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, blues with rock ’n’ roll edge—Jimi Hendrix, that kind of stuff,” he said. “I was always leaning a little more to traditional blues. But when I was a teenager I listened to that a lot and I played it on guitar with my record player and with garage bands, just a bunch of kids in a garage making noise.

“Some of this stuff reminds me of that, that kind of feeling,” Castro said of the new recording. “The track with Bonamassa on it is like that. I wish that was me playing on it, but it’s him.”

Bonamassa is guitarist Joe Bonamassa, who joined Castro and the band on “I’m Tired.” He’s just one of the guests on the album, part of a lineup that includes Marcia Ball, The Holmes Brothers, Tab Benoit and J. Geils Band harmonica player Magic Dick.

Ball, for example, stopped by the Bay Area studio when she was playing a nearby show and added her piano and vocals to the Louisiana boogie of “Mojo Hannah,” while Magic Dick and The Holmes Brothers came in and gave the propulsive “Two Steps Forward” its gospel feel.

“All the people I wanted came through for me and made this record something special,” Castro said.

Now Castro and his new band are on the road, bringing the new sounds of The Devil You Know to clubs across the country.

“We’re leaving no place untarnished,” Castro said of the extensive touring schedule. “I do love it. We have a funky old bus we get around in. It gives us a little sense of home away from home. It’s still a lot of fun, sure; especially when you’re starting the tour on the Blues Cruise. You can’t complain about that.”

At 58, Castro has a way to go before he catches Hooker. With his new band and album, he hopes he’s on the right path.

“I’m very happy with the way it turned out and how the band has turned out,” Castro said. “It took a long time. But this is the direction I wanted to go.”