Houston's scene sees the release of its second great pop-rock CD in six months; also: March Music Madness hits town on the touring front

Tody Castillo's self-titled new CD hits you with the stealth and power of a pot brownie. It takes a while to digest. You put it in and sit there and go about your business. About 15 minutes in, when Castillo warbles "God Only Knows" over and over again during the masterful crescendo of the song of the same name, it hits you like a ton of concrete. "This stuff is really, really good," you realize amid a rush of endorphins.

It's first-class modern pop-rock of a very high order, a lush, layered and melancholy river of sound, comparable to works by guys like Ron Sexsmith, Rufus Wainwright and local Arthur Yoria. Castillo's clear, soaring tenor floats amid streams of guitars electric, acoustic and pedal steel -- courtesy of former Yoria sideman Matt Rhodes -- while Paul "Falcon" Valdez's jazzy drums percolate beneath. Its thrills are gentle as those you get floating on the Pedernales River on a summer afternoon when the water is at medium stage -- you drift along with the flow, at peace with the world, as the bluebirds flit through the tall cypresses on the banks.

It's also great rainy-day music, as his in-store at Cactus on February 26 attested. With a crack band including Rhodes, longtime cohort Valdez on the drums, fresh-back-from-New York-and-L.A. bassist Steve Brown and guitarist Matt Hammon, Castillo wowed one of the largest crowds I have ever seen at Cactus for a local artist, and most of those people and more came to his show later that night at Rudyard's.

"The show went really well, dude," Castillo says. "It was weird -- it was packed!"

The CD release show and the disc itself are a satisfying culmination of about a decade and a half of struggle, both here and in New York, where Castillo spent a good chunk of the late '90s. Castillo had succumbed to the common Houston musician's malaise back then: He got fed up and he left town. Don't look for a repeat performance of that act.

"A lot of people start here, and if they have any talent, or they get some momentum going, the attitude usually turns south about Houston," he says. "It's all 'Dude, fuck this town! I hate Houston!' A long time ago I had that attitude, not because I hated Houston but because I really wanted to live in New York. I did kinda use that as an excuse. And then when I went up there, it was cool. There was a great songwriter thing up there, no doubt about it. But then you realize that town is insane. I'm from Texas, I'm not used to paying $1,200 for a tiny piece of shit."

There were also sordid scenes the Corpus-born Castillo just couldn't get used to. "I lived in Williamsburg for a while. I got a basement apartment, 800 bucks a month, first stop out of Manhattan and right on the East River. That was awesome. Short commute, first stop, there was a lot of art there, fairly cheap. But it was a shithole -- it was all old warehouses, half-Polish and half-Dominican and Puerto Rican. It was funky -- we had hookers in our basement stairwell. My neighbor was this Japanese guy, and every now and then he would go out with a hot pot and fuckin' douse them with hot water. He'd go, 'Goddammit, get out of here,' and you'd hear this splash and this whole big ruckus. And I'd be like, 'Mommy, I want to come back to Houston!' "

Tired of being a little fish in a big and expensive -- not to mention scuzzy -- pond, Castillo returned to Houston in 2001. "Moving back here, I thought how great Houston was. It's under the radar, it's not a quote-unquote music town, the cost of living is great, I'm so happy there's not a huge saturation of people here. You know, in Austin it's pay to play, in New York it's pay to play. Fuck that. Here I can make 300 bucks at The Stag's Head playing original music. In New York, you cannot do that. In fact, I don't know of another town where you can do that. I've been talking to my bandmates, and they say it's great here. Let people leave here if they want. We'll just tell 'em, 'Yeah, Houston sucks. Get out, dude.' "

After three years of scuffling solo on the Stag's Head/Harp pub circuit, Castillo assembled a band and cut this CD last April, and it joins Michael Haaga's The Plus and Minus Show as the second truly great -- and I'm talking "great" in the national sense, not the I'm-cutting-the-locals-some-slack sense -- pop-rock CD to come out of Houston in the last six months. The weird thing about Houston is that neither of these two guys has ever heard the other play on CD or live, and neither have the vast majority of the two guys' fan bases. Each can already pack Rudyard's-size clubs on their own. Were they to team up for a show or two, the results could be downright righteous.

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