Tommy Castro: A bluesman comes to town with a blues opera for the ages

Tommy Castro has been a dynamic presence on San Francisco’s blues scene since he first appeared in the ’80s. He just released a new album, A Bluesman Came To Town, and it’s one of his best. He cut the record in Nashville, with producer Tom Hambridge, using a band of studio veterans. 

“I never make the same record twice,” Castro said. “I keep my music fresh by taking different approaches to writing and recording. I’m always looking to do something I’ve never done before. My last album, Stomping Ground, told my story. A kid gets interested in the blues by listening to soul, R&B and blues records. It’s a throwback to the time when I was a hippie kid in the Bay Area, listening to Elvin Bishop, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, B.B. King and lots of blues artists. I put a big piece of myself into the songs and included a few covers from that era. I liked the way it came out, so I thought about writing a bunch of songs that connected to each other in order to tell a story. 

“I’d been toying with the idea of a blues opera for a while. I like rock operas like Green Day’s American Idiot and the Who’s Tommy. I began imagining a romantic blues adventure, based on the hero’s journeys from Greek and Roman mythology. A kid in rural America is dreaming of a different life. When a bluesman comes to town, he’s changed forever. After hearing the blues, he decides to start a band and go on the road. I ran the idea past Bruce Iglauer, head of my label, Alligator Records. He didn’t think it was a bad idea, so I pursued it.”

“I co-wrote most of the songs with producer Tom Hambridge. I met Tom on a B.B. King tour 20 years ago. He’d produced an album by Susan Tedeschi and was playing drums in her band. I liked the work he’d done with Buddy Guy, ZZ Top and Johnny Winter and decided the time was right to collaborate with him. 

“I wanted to get his best, so I went to his Nashville studio and cut the record using a studio band. He had an A-list of players and they got things done right, and quickly. I wrote seven songs with him at his home. It wasn’t complicated. I told him the storyline and we sat there with guitars, pencils and papers, trading ideas and writing. When we were done, I came home and went on tour. Then the pandemic happened.

“I sat around for a few months, then decided to record with the musicians in his bubble. We’d made demos of the songs we wrote with acoustic guitar and voice. I sent him demos of the songs I wrote at home. He showed everything to the band and then—bam—one or two takes and they’re done. I was there for the sessions, singing and playing. We did some rewriting, trying out things to make the songs better. Some of them flew, some didn’t, but I trusted Tom’s instincts. I finished some of my guitar work at home. I was able to take my time and focus on my solos, more than I have in the past.”

Castro has never been a conventional bluesman. His music is blues-based, but includes elements of soul, R&B, funk, Latin and rock. All those elements shine brightly on Bluesman. Castro’s acoustic guitar taps into the sound of the Delta Blues on “Somewhere,” the album opener. Tom Hambridge lays down a funky backbeat to compliment Castro’s understated vocal and the tasty harmonica fills of sideman Jimmy Hall. Castro’s guitar work on “I Caught a Break” suggests Chuck Berry’s lines on “Johnny B. Goode.” His exuberant vocal mirrors the joy his unnamed protagonist feels as he hits the big time playing in a band. “I’m a big Chuck Berry fan and, of course, he influences my guitar playing,” Castro said. “There’s a bit of Jimmy Vaughn, too. It’s rock and roll that swings.”

“Hustle” tips its hat to James Brown with chicken-scratch guitar rhythms, a la Jimmy Nolen, and a funk backbeat. The arrangement was improvised live, in the studio. The joys and pitfalls of fame are the subject of “Women, Drugs and Alcohol,” a bluesy rocker. Castro’s solo nods to the work of B.B. King, as he sings in a tone balanced between hedonistic cheer and ironic insight. “Every hero has to run into a cyclops or a dragon on his journey. In the music business, drugs and drinking are the demons. I do know a little bit about that,” Castro said, laughing.

The slow groove of “Blues Prisoner” is another blues tune with a traditional slant. The rippling arpeggios of session-man Kevin McKendree’s piano compliment Castro’s sustained electric guitar notes and mournful vocals. “It felt good to play a minor blues,” Castro said. “I usually shy away from them, as well Hendrix-style flourishes. My style is more like the things that B.B. King and Buddy Guy do, in major keys. I thought it was time for me to go for that classic minor blues for a change. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just went straight for it. It felt very natural. The song called for a minor key, and I surprised myself.”

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