On a beautiful day in Hinckley, Minnesota at the Grand Casino Amphitheater, I had a chance to talk with guitarist/singer Tommy Castro prior to his performance as the opening act at the 2001 Lloyd's B. B. King Blues Festival. Castro is a talented, yet humble, guitarist who seemed to be just as in awe with his opportunity to play on the same billing as B.B. King, Buddy Guy and John Hiatt, as I was at getting an opportunity to talk to him about his music and career. His winning smile and friendly demeanor are more than sufficient to put anyone at ease and make them feel like they are talking to a good friend instead of one of the rising stars of the blues.
As we sat down backstage at the Grand Casino Amphitheater, I thought carefully about how to open the interview. After some quick consideration, I asked Tommy how he felt about appearing on B. B. King's tour two years in a row. Quickly, Tommy replied, "I love it!!" He went on to describe what a thrill is was to be able to play with guitarists who he idolized when he was younger and that he was "stunned" when he was to be asked to tour again with B. B. King and Buddy Guy. Having described these two gentlemen as having great influence on his musical style, Tommy indicated that it was extended tours like these where he is able to listen, talk to and learn from musical giants like King, Guy and John Hiatt. He described a similar experience when he performed on Delbert McClinton's Blues Cruise where he was able to meet and talk to some great songwriters like Gary Nicholson and Steven Bruton who eventually contributed as co-writers on several of the songs on his latest CD release, Guilty Of Love. "It is experiences like these that make me a better performer," Castro said.
When we talked about Tommy's musical influences, names like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and Freddie King came up. Tommy laughed as he indicated that King and Guy have been great influences on his music for a long time and he was not just saying these things because he happened to be touring with them. He also indicated that he was hooked on the blues from the time he got his first blues album, B. B. King's Live At Cook County Jail. Everyone in the room laughed at that since it seems all of us had B. B. King albums that represented our first, and lasting, taste of the blues too. Classifying this tour as a "dream come true," his comments showed his great respect for King, indicating that, "The guy is 75 years old and can kick more ass sitting down than some of us can standing!" He also cited the late John Lee Hooker as one of his idols, referring to him as being "bigger than life" with his deep powerful vocals. He also mentioned what a thrill it was to have Hooker perform on his new CD just prior to his death. Interestingly, Castro referred to himself as a "musical sponge." He went on to explain that he listens to lots of music and seems to be influenced by all of it in some fashion, hearing elements of many styles and artists in his music and performance. When I asked Castro who he liked to listen to when he was not on tour, he again mentioned B.B.'s name, along with Ray Charles and Buddy Guy.
Next we discussed what Tommy felt was his greatest accomplishment was to date, he quickly replied that right now it was the new CD, Guilty of Love. He also indicated that this might change over time, but for right now he was very happy with the results of his most recent musical project. When asked why, Castro indicated that the CD represented the band doing some things differently than on past recordings, allowing them to remain fresh and excited about the work. He also cited the musical collaborations with songwriters Gary Nicholson and Steven Bruton as being quite fruitful and adding another dimension to his songs. He spoke most fondly (with a touch of sorrow) though of his work with John Lee Hooker that resulted in what turned out to be the late bluesman's final recording (just two weeks prior to his death) on the title track of the CD, "Guilty of Love." Tommy told a wonderful story of his friendship with Hooker that developed as a result of living in the same area and sharing musical bills in California and Nevada in recent years. When Castro first wrote and recorded "Guilty of Love," he said that he had a vision of what the song would sound like and the value that a contribution by Hooker would make to it. When he approached the elder bluesman, Hooker agreed and the wheels began to turn. Castro wanted to make it as easy as possible for Hooker to participate and decided that once the track was recorded, they would set up shop at Hooker's home to put the finishing touches on the song. A copy of the tune was sent to Hooker to listen to (at his insistence), and when the time came to record Hooker's part, the recording was set up in the living room of his house. John Lee provided backup vocals on the chorus in his characteristic style, right from his living room couch! As he proudly showed us pictures of the session, he said that the recording came out exactly as he had imagined it, made complete by Hooker's vocals.
Castro then considered his future in music, saying that he really did not know what the future had in store for him and that he was just trying to take things day-by-day, doing the best that he possibly could every time he walked on stage. He was emphatic in his desire to keep getting better every day and that he hoped to be active when he was 75 or older just like his B. B. King and right up until the day he died, like John Lee Hooker. He also said that he really likes what he does and KNOWS that it is what he does best; indicating that his life and career have gone "just the way they are supposed to" and will continue to do so as long as he sticks with it.
When I expressed to him my belief that he and the band were better every time I saw them perform, he was obviously flattered. When I asked him why he thought that was true, he suggested that the band was better for two different reasons. First, he felt that they had improved because they were constantly challenged by the quality of the acts that they were asked to play with. He cited the B. B. King tour as a prime example of the need for the band to perform at a high level in order to maintain their status with the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Sonny Landreth and John Hiatt. He further stated that when you looked at his participation in Delbert McClinton's tours, it was clear that the band was just naturally exposed to a lot of very talented people day in and day out, making the challenges almost continuous. The other key reason Castro cited for the improvement of the band was the fact that they had played so well together for so long, sharing a desire to get better with every performance. Tommy pointed out that Randy McDonald (bass) and Keith Crossan (sax) were both founding members of the band with Castro and that "newcomer" Billy Lee Lewis (drums) had been playing with the band for nearly four years. "Everyone just seems to know what to do and when because we have been together for so long, " Castro said. "We watch and listen to ourselves on tape to figure out ways we can do things better." He further explained that everyone tries to improve constantly and that they work to remain as original as possible regardless of what they are playing. The comradery of the band members was evident as they passed in and out of the room during the interview with Tommy; they seem to be good friends, not just members of the same band with a good working relationship.
Another area where we spent a lot of time revolved around Tommy's new record label, 33rd Street Records. When asked about how he felt about the change, Castro quickly responded that he was VERY HAPPY with the new label and the new CD. Since we had already spent quite a bit of time talking about the record, Tommy focused on what he liked about the new label. Characterizing 33rd Street Records as "slaughtering many "sacred cows" in the recording industry," Castro explained that the label was very artist friendly and allowed artists to retain ownership of their music by leasing the rights for a period of time from the artist and then relinquishing those rights at lease-end. He also indicated that the royalties were higher at 33rd Street and there were fewer "up charges" on recordings that many times were never recovered by the artists. Despite his good relationship over the years with his previous label, Blind Pig, Castro felt that the new label offered too many good things to pass up. Castro's only disappointment in the whole situation was that Blind Pig had chosen to release a Tommy Castro compilation CD at the same time as Guilty of Love, despite Castro's protests and lucrative offers from his new label for Blind Pig to delay the release for six months. Tommy, however, maintained his good humor, indicating his belief that the bad feelings of the current situation would eventually pass and the friendships forged at Blind Pig would prevail. I couldn't help but be amazed at Castro's excellent attitude over a situation that would cause others to "go ballistic."
One curious point raised to Tommy in the interview was why he thought he had such a large following of females in his audiences. They answer was actually somewhat unexpected and did not involve comments on Castro's charm, charisma, good looks or talent. Instead, he speculated that women found the band appealing because, unlike some blues that is more attractive to men, The Tommy Castro Band's sound is not guitar heavy. He felt that because every member of the band was a key contributor and that solos were shared between Castro and Crossan, audiences liked to watch the entire band and did not focus on one "guitar hero." Castro also indicated that everyone in the band tries to convey emotion in their playing, rather than simply trying to dazzle everyone with exacting technique and speed. Castro finished by saying, "If we can get people to forget their problems for a little while as they listen, we are doing our job."
With his final comment, Castro expressed his thanks for taking the time to talk with him and indicated that he hoped to give the audience at the Grand Casino a great show (which he did). After learning more about the man and hearing his music, I can only wish the best for Tommy Castro and I believe that he will continue to be a significant contributor to the music business for years to come.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.