Tommy Castro has been a dynamic presence on the San Francisco blues scene since his first appearance in the 1980s. He has just released a new album, A bluesman came to town, and this is one of his best. He recorded the record in Nashville, with producer Tom Hambridge, using a group of studio veterans.
“I never do 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, Playground, told my story. A child becomes interested in the blues by listening to soul, R&B and blues records. It’s a throwback to when I was a hippie kid in the Bay Area, listening to Elvin Bishop, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, BB King and lots of blues artists. I put a lot of myself into the songs and included a few covers from that time. I liked the way it came out, so I thought about writing a bunch of songs that connect to each other in order to tell a story.
“I had toyed with the idea of a blues opera for a while. I like rock operas like the one on Green Day american idiot and the who is Tommy. I began to imagine a romantic blues adventure, based on the hero’s travels from Greek and Roman mythology. A child from rural America dreams of a different life. When a bluesman comes to town, he’s changed forever. After hearing the blues, he decides to form a band and go on the road. I passed the idea on to Bruce Iglauer, director of my label, Alligator Records. He didn’t think it was a bad idea, so I chased him.
“I co-wrote most of the songs with producer Tom Hambridge. I met Tom on a BB King tour 20 years ago. He had produced a Susan Tedeschi album and played drums in his band. I liked the work he had done with Buddy Guy, ZZ Top and Johnny Winter and decided that now is the time to collaborate with him.
“I wanted to do her best, so I went to her studio in Nashville and recorded the record with a studio band. He had an A list of players and they got it right and fast. I wrote seven songs with him at his house. It was not complicated. I told him the story and we sat there with guitars and pencils and papers, brainstorming and writing. When we were done I came home and went on tour. Then the pandemic arrived.
“I sat down for a few months, then decided to record with the musicians from his bubble. We had demos of songs we wrote with acoustic guitar and vocals. I sent him demos of the songs I wrote at home. He showed the band everything and then — bam — a take or two and voila. I was there for the sessions, singing and playing. We did some rewrite, tried things to improve the songs. 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 concentrate on my solos, more than in the past.
Castro has never been a conventional bluesman. His music is based on the blues, but includes elements of soul, R&B, funk, Latin and rock. All these elements shine Bluesman. Castro’s acoustic guitar draws on the sound of Delta Blues on “Somewhere”, the album’s opening. Tom Hambridge poses a funky backbeat to compliment Castro’s understated vocals and the tasty harmonica fillings of sideman Jimmy Hall. Castro’s guitar work on “I Caught a Break” suggests Chuck Berry’s lines on “Johnny B. Goode”. His exuberant voice reflects the joy his unnamed protagonist feels as he performs in a band. “I’m a huge fan of Chuck Berry and of course he influences my guitar playing,” Castro said. “There’s also a bit of Jimmy Vaughn. It’s rock and roll swinging.
“Hustle” takes his hat off to James Brown with scratch guitar, Jimmy Nolen-style rhythms 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 blues rocker. Castro’s solo gives a nod to BB King’s work, as he sings in a tone balanced between hedonistic cheer and ironic insight. “Every hero must meet a cyclops or a dragon on their journey. In the music business, drugs and alcohol are the demons. I know a bit about that,” Castro said with a laugh.
The slow groove of “Blues Prisoner” is another blues track with a traditional slant. Session man Kevin McKendree’s undulating arpeggios compliment the sustained notes of the electric guitar and Castro’s dismal voice. “It was good to play a minor blues,” Castro said. “I generally avoid them, as well as the Hendrix-style frills. My style is more like what BB King and Buddy Guy do, in the major keys. I thought it was time for me to go for this classic little blues for a change. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, I went straight to it. It was very natural. The song called for a minor key, and I surprised myself.