Blues Veteran Tommy Castro Isn't Afraid of Change

Tommy Castro is one of those intrepid road warriors whose devotion to the blues has been both unwavering and somewhat challenging. His new album, the appropriately titled Method to My Madness, is no exception.

"It's easy to hide behind a big band..."

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"I wanted to get back to basics," Castro says. "I wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel. So I went back to my roots, but I wanted it to sound less produced. Some of the music on my previous album, The Devil You Know, pushed the envelope a little bit and made some of my old fans nervous. It was a little too heavy for them. There was basic blues on there, but it was a lot edgier."

Castro speaks over the phone from his home in San Francisco, where he's just returned after playing a concert in Costa Rica that also afforded him a rare vacation — a nice perk for a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and bandleader of more than 25 years. He got his start as a sideman with a soul band called the Dynatones and before that as a Bay Area musician who once averaged 300-plus shows a year.

"Now, if we play San Francisco, we can only do it every 90 days," says Castro. "It's ridiculous, but that's what you have to do. That's the price you pay for becoming a so-called 'national act.'?"

Though it's afforded him a larger following, it's more of a struggle keeping things fresh but also accessible for longtime fans. "I started out as a four-piece band with a saxophone player; then we started adding other people," he notes. "I added a trumpet player, and then I had this big, fat, wall-of-sound type of band for several years. Then I got weary of that — been there, done that — and I'd go out with just a bass player and a drummer."

After experimenting with a leaner sound as a three-piece, Castro again felt the impulse to change things. "I wanted to play more guitar. It's easy to hide behind a big band... I realized that in order to keep pushing myself and improve my guitar skills and try some some different kinds of songs, it would help me to start this new phase of the group, which I now call the Painkillers." The latest lineup includes a keyboardist, "sort of a traditional quartet setup," says Castro. "I had never done that before."

He also takes cues from more contemporary acts — "people like Gary Clark Jr., Jack White, the Black Keys... people that are getting a lot of airplay," says Castro — though he acknowledges the risk in that approach. "You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't. If I did the same thing over and over, they'd say, 'Here comes another Tommy Castro record, just like the last one.' But if I do something different, they'll comment, 'We like the old sound!' So you have to be an artist. You have to be creative."

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers

8 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at the Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd., Suite 59, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $15 to $30. Call 561-465-3946.

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Lee Zimmerman