When young Tommy Castro was growing up in San Jose, California, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he knew he loved the music of bands like the Yardbirds, Cream, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. He also dug guitarists Elvin Bishop, Michael Bloomfield and Taj Mahal. But it wasn’t until a little later that he really was aware of their association with the “B” word.
“I didn’t really know it was blues. I just thought it was rock and roll on the radio!” Castro laughs. “As I started to get more interested learning to play guitar, I traced things back by reading interviews. And that’s how I found out about Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Albert King and my main guy, B.B. King. Then Texas players like Gatemouth Brown and T-Bone Walker.”
Castro says that he’s gone back to those basics with his new album, Method to My Madness (Alligator). And while he’s put out more than a dozen albums since the mid-’90s, both with the Tommy Castro Band and solo, Method is his second with new backing band the Painkillers: Randy McDonald (bass); Bowen Brown (drums); and Michael Emerson (keyboards). Though it sounds a bit different from their debut, The Devil You Know.
“There was a conscious effort to do something different," explains Castro. "The last one was a big project with all these special guests and producers and studios and guitar effects and modern mixing techniques. And that worked out really well for us.
“But I wanted to get something out before another three or four years went by, so this one was simple, straight-ahead, live-sounding record with a minimum of post-production," he adds. "It's really just basic blues, the kind of stuff I cut my teeth on.”
Many of the songs' subjects address various types of love: obsessive (“Method to My Madness”), romantic (“Died and Gone to Heaven”), hopeful (“Two Hearts”), plaintive (a cover of Clarence Carter’s “I’m Qualified”) and dejected (“Lose Lose”). A further trio of tunes deals with bad, bad luck with jobs and money. But Castro gets political on record opener “Common Ground,” which he says was readily inspired by the current political climate in America and the people in charge of creating it.
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“Well, I’m pissed off," Castro allows. "I don’t like that they’ve got us all fighting each other. That’s more politics than how people feel. They’re led by Fox News and told what to think and how to feel and you’re left or right or red state or blue state. And it’s gotten to this level where it’s scary now. I wanted to point out that we are more alike than we are different.”
Another tune, “Ride,” is a semi-autobiographical number about the North Beach section of San Francisco, where Castro began his musical career. According to him, it was kind of a fantastical place with three blues bars on a block, the spirit (and actual flesh) of Beat writers and hippies in the air, and a cast of real-life characters with colorful names who could party for days on end.
“We had such a fun time getting the band off the ground and working on original songs there," he remembers. "There’s a feeling in that neighborhood, quite a scene and a long history of creative types working and living there and doing a lot of drugs and drinking and partying. When I go there today, I always imagine that the spirits of the ghosts of those characters are still hanging around.”
As for getting new material out on the radio, Castro notes that pretty much the only platform nationally on which to hear new blues tunes is the Sirius/XM’s channel B.B. King’s Bluesville. He wistfully remembers the days in the ’80s and early ’90s when mainstream AAA radio would regularly spin something new from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt or Robert Cray.
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“You don’t have to even buy music anymore," he says. "You can listen to anything at anytime you want." Still, Castro adds that he’s grateful to streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music for introducing new listeners to his music.
Method to My Madness is available, of course, in a variety of formats including physical CDs, downloads, and vinyl LPs. Castro says that at gigs — where the majority of his sales occur — the latter format has shot up in popularity. Recently, for the first time, he moved more LPs than CDs at a show.
“I will pull out the new record on red, clear vinyl after a show, and it will get a round of applause on its own!” Castro laughs. “And my 18-year-old son? He buys only vinyl!”
Tommy Castro & the Painkillers perform tonight at Main Street Crossing, 111 West Main in Tomball. Tickets are $20-28.