Albert Castiglia works the room like a prodigal son at his first family reunion. The air of familiarity and fandom is unmistakable. Several people in the crowd are wearing Castiglia t-shirts. Others remark about how many of his shows they’ve seen, several insisting they’ve followed him up and down the East Coast, because they simply can’t get enough of him. One couple has come all the way from North Carolina. It’s little wonder, then, that Castiglia greets them so affectionally, freely offering big bear hugs while he greets each individual by their first name.
It’s a scene one might expect to find at any of the innumerable clubs Castiglia and his trio regularly play in South Florida. Except this isn’t South Florida. It’s Maryville (Correct Southern pronunciation: “MUHRvul”), Tennessee, a cozy little hamlet just outside Knoxville, located in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains.
To someone new to the region, like myself, it makes for a bit of irony. After all, my wife Alisa and I have been here a scant two months, and here we had an opportunity to catch Castiglia at Barley’s, a local club less than five miles away. It also offered a chance to connect with an old pal from back home in Miami. Maybe it would be good for a bit of nostalgia, even if the room was hardly filled. We knew how good he was, even if the other folks in these environs had no idea.
How surprising then that those other folks not only knew who he was, but were heartily singing his praises. “I’ve been coming here for the past ten years,” Castiglia told us, sharing at least part of the reason why it seemed like he was being greeted like some kind of conquering hero. “This place has been very good to me.”
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Indeed, once the show started, it was easy to see why. As Castiglia started shredding on his guitar, several women in the crowd literally shreiked with sheer adulation. Others simply shouted out their approval. Many raced to the dance floor, imploring others to join them. The men responded just as enthusiastically, standing, stomping their feet, and waving their arms and their fists after nearly every number. This seemed to be an audience of devoted Dead Heads, except it wasn’t the Dead they were cheering for. Rather, it was a South Florida blues belter by the name of Albert Castiglia.
Little wonder then that the man in the spotlight eagerly soaked it all up. “Please welcome the Solid Gold Dancers,” he joked with his customary humor as the floor next to the stage started filling up. It was the finale of sorts to an extended excursion that took him throughout the South, but if he was feeling homesick, he offered little hint. “My wife’s in Monaco,” he noted, somewhat incredulously. “But I’m in Maryville, the Monaco of Tennessee. This is the last show of our tour and I can’t think of a better way to end it.”
“We love you, Albert!” a woman shouted suddenly. “I love you, too,” Castiglia responded.
The set list was standard blues — a take on the classic “Hoochie Coochie Man,” a revved up “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” a revamped version of “Bob Dylan’s “Catfish” played for yours truly, some Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon, and, natch, several tracks from his latest album, Solid Ground — but Castiglia and the band’s other talented twosome, bassist Matt Shuler and drummer Chris Schnebelen, provide such riveting performances, it’s as if these songs were being performed for the first time. Castiglia even tossed in a snippet of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” waving his arm in classic Pete Townshend windmill style, as if to add to the overall exhilaration.
As the rapturous response grew ever more intense, Castiglia again offered some homage of his own. “I hold some of you very close,” he tells the audience. “Thank you for supporting me all these years. You’re like family to me. In fact, I would trust you more than I do members of my real family.”
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Now that’s something I never heard in South Florida.
After two fiery, frenzied sets, the evening came to a close. With that, I approached Castiglia and asked him the obvious question: I’ve seen him perform many times in Miami, I told him him, but I’d never, ever seen an audience respond to him like this. Would he ever consider relocating so as to be closer to this crowd? "Nah," he answered. “I could never give up South Florida.”
Still, the hometown crowd would be well advised to take note. Maryville loves him just as much, South Florida — if not more.
With California Honeydrops. 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 31, at Historic Downtowner Saloon, 10 S. New River Dr. E., Fort Lauderdale. Free, 21 and over. Call 954-463-9800.