The wind is whipping Tommy Castro’s hands-free device when he answers for an interview. He’s trying to squeeze in a few miles on his bicycle in between tour dates while the band is stopped in San Antonio, Texas.
“We’ve been on the bus for about two days straight,” he says between breaths. “Gotta get out there moving around some.”
The blues/roots guitarist and vocalist and his band, Keith Crossan on sax, Tom Poole on trumpet, Scot Sutherland on bass, Tony Stead on keys and Syracuse-bred drummer Byron Cage, are in the midst of an extensive tour, taking themselves from California to Canada.
Syracuse and Upstairs at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 246 W. Willow St., on Sunday, Nov. 20, seems to be a highlight destination of the tour. “We’ve been going there since the band started years ago,” Castro says. “It’s one of the best places to eat…that goes a long way with a band like mine.”
Castro, 56, first picked up the guitar when he was 10 years old and has rarely put it down since. He worked up his chops playing with various groups around San Francisco in the early 1990s, including Bay area band The Dynatones, who were signed to Warner Bros. at the time. In 1993 Castro formed his own group and released No Foolin’ (Saloon) in 1994. In 1997 the group got picked up as the house band for NBC’s Comedy Showcase, which aired after Saturday Night Live.
Since then, Castro has released nine more albums, toured with B.B. King, won a slew of blues awards and found himself sailing along on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise with other blues greats like Jimmy Thackery who swung in the Dinosaur only a week before Castro on Nov. 13. But the awards and accolades don’t go to Castro’s head.
“The comedy show and B.B. King…I guess they mention them in my bio to put these little bits and pieces together that maybe tell the story a little bit,” he explains. “Hopefully, people will find that a little bit interesting. We’re just a band of guys goin’ out playin’ music. It’s a big deal to me because this is how I support my family. So many of the brilliant, incredible experience that I’ve had in my life are all because of this. To me it’s a big deal. But reading about it for anybody…it’s just a bunch of guys going out and playing music. It’s not that big a deal when you think about the big picture…We all have our little path and I’m just happy that we’re still able, that every day I get to go out and do this. I’m very grateful.”
Q: Tommy, I’ve read a lot about you…
A: It’s all lies. Don’t believe a word they say.
Q: Is it true you started playing guitar when you were 10?
A: I did. My older brother was six years older than me. He was into the Beatles and Stones and Yardbirds and stuff like that. He had a little rock band that he was in and that’s what got me into it.
Q: Did he let you play in his band?
A: No! (laughs) No! I used to have to sneak his guitar all the time. I snuck his guitar often enough that he figured it would be a good way to get me to do things for him. So he would say, “Look here, I’ll show you a couple chords on the guitar if you go out and wash my car.” So…but I learned how to play that way. He actually liked the idea that his little brother…I was playing the guitar like him. He eventually kinda gave up and I continued on playing just for the fun of it most of my life. And I got older and really wasn’t having as much success with other things that I was trying to do for a living. I always played music. Always had a little gig on the side and one day it dawned on me that maybe that’s just what I was supposed to do. So there it went.
Q: What brought you to blues music specifically?
A: Well, at the time that I was listening to blues music on the radio, remember FM radio was kind of a new format. They had AM radio when I was a little kid and then all of a sudden there was this FM format. They played a wide variety of music and it was the '60s and music was changing pretty quickly all the time. There was an element of blues music coming from a couple of places like Chicago with bands like this guy called Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. And guys from…Johnny Winter, Taj Mahal was getting played on the radio and then at the same time the promoter from San Francisco would put things together like psychedelic bands like the Dead or Jefferson Airplane with Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker…So we were exposed to a lot of cool stuff, good stuff. My gears gravitated toward the blues right away that was the stuff that I liked. I didn’t even know that it was blues.
Q: You didn’t know?
A: I thought I was listening to rock because I was getting it from the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and Cream and I didn’t realize it was blues until I started reading about it a little bit. I was surprised to hear…somebody wrote an article that was like, “Eric Clapton is the best blues guitar player in England.” And I said, “Blues guitar player? What the heck?” It rocked me that I was listening to Cream and you think that you’re listening to rock music, but it’s more specifically heavy blues.
Q: Tell me how you became the house band for Comedy Showcase.
A: Well, that’s kind of a bizarre sequence of events really. I was playing with a few other people’s groups and I eventually decided that I wanted to start my own band. So I started this Tommy Castro Band and by then I was living in San Francisco and we just kinda started our band at the right time. It was very popular among the young, urban professional crowd. These people were working in the financial district and all these chic companies. It was during a time where there was a lot of money running around because of the whole Silicon Valley explosion, the Internet explosion…There were all these people running around looking for something to do. It was very fashionable at the time to go slummin’ it in the blues joint. So we literally worked every single night and we sometimes worked two shows, two different gigs in the same day. So we would easily work 28-30 shows a month just in the Bay area. So there we were making quite a lot of noise around our neighborhood and a little record label, Blind Pig Records, thought it would be a good idea to make a record with us ‘cause hell, if we just sold them off the stage we’d be selling a lot of records. And then that record got out, our first release on Blind Pig (Exception to the Rule, 1995) and it got in the hands of a producer for Comedy Showcase and he liked the sound of the band and he put us on the show.
Q: How was it doing the show?
A: You’re only there for like two weeks. They tape two shows a day. And then that’s the whole season. You go down and they just run comics on and off the stage and in between each comic there’s a little “bump” music, they called it. And the funny thing about that show was that it’s an HBO production and believe it or not, they told me, “Ya know, we don’t want you playing anybody else’s songs because we don’t want to have to pay the royalties for that.” And I said, “OK, well that’s fine because I have lots of my own songs.” And they said, “Well, we don’t want you playing any of your own songs either.” And I said, “Well what does that leave!?” And they said, “Well, can’t you play some kind of generic blues music?” And I said, “Well, I’d rather play my own. Can I sign something that says you don’t have to pay me? Just so I could play my own songs on the show?” And they said, “Oh, yeah. We can arrange that.” So we did and we played our own songs. I just thought it was funny that they said that. I remember that moment in my brain when I went, what? What did you say? Can’t play other people’s and can’t play my own? What the hell am I supposed to play? So anyway, we made that deal and it was awesome. It was so much fun because all we did was laugh.
Q: Sounds like a dream job.
A: Yeah, and we’d go out with the crew after the show in different spots around Hollywood. I remember after one of those tapings we were going to dinner with some of the people from HBO and the House of Blues radio hour was playing our new record while we were going from the set to dinner in a limousine. It was really fuckin’ cool. It was a cool time period. So that was just one little chapter in our story. But the thing about it is, I still run into people now and then who say, “Ya know, the first time I heard you guys was on that comedy show.” Wow, we did actually reach quite a few people that way.
Q: And here you are, still going.
A: Here we are 20 years later. Still running around the country making records and playing music. Pretty faithful little following and having a pretty good time. Ya know, we just came off of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise which is pretty good little gig.
Q: I heard that. Jimmy Thackery was there too?
A: Yeah he was. We did a songwriting workshop together where we worked with the audience and wrote a song on the spot. Kind of fun. Jim’s a good friend of mine. We’ve been running into each other ever since I started going on the road with this band. We would see him and his band a lot. We had a lot of good times together. Him and I once went together to Arkansas on a canoe trip on the river in Arkansas. One of the most fun times I remember in my life.
Q: How was it touring with B.B. King?
A: Oh man, that was like a dream come true. I never expected that. B.B. was like the first real blues guy I ever found out about. I listened to the Rolling Stones and Michael Bloomfield and basically a bunch of white guys that were getting played on the radio a lot. I started investigating where these guys were getting the music from and I found B.B. King and that was a big, big event in my life. I kinda got stuck on B.B. for a long time as a kid. So here I was, many years later and I got the opportunity to go on the road with him. It was very exciting and a big thrill to be on tour with my big hero and actually get to hang out and talk to him like a person. Just a couple of guys hanging out backstage. He’s a very nice man. Very friendly. Makes you feel welcome. Being the enormous icon of the blues that he is, the big star that he is--he is just very down to earth. And he knows guys like me are just losing our minds because we’re meeting him and he makes you feel so comfortable that you get over it right away. This isn’t something to be so scared about, he’s a nice guy. So that was my experience. And then we went on a tour with them one summer and then they asked us back the following summer.
Q: You’ve toured with B.B. King, won a ton of awards…what’s been the greatest honor of your career, an award or an experience?
A: That’s a great question. I think it’s the experience really…being able to…we were just on the Blues Cruise and I got to play with Elvin Bishop who I’ve been a huge fan of ever since I was 15 years old. Listening to his music, he was one of the guys I really, really liked when I was learning how to play, even to the point I went out and got a guitar like his. So here I am on this cruise and he’s sitting in with my band and I’m playing with him and his band and that’s the kinda stuff…is the most rewarding to me. That I’m able to do that. That I took it full circle. These are the guys who inspired me and cause me to play and do what I do. I don’t kid myself that I’m in the same league as cats like that, but I do really value those things in my life that just come about.
Q: I bet you’ve had many experiences like that.
A: Yeah, like Bobby Bland, another legendary bluesman…we were on the ship and I got to play with him just for a couple of minutes. He looked right at me, Bobby Bland, big as life. If you know the history of Bobby Bland and how important he is to blues music. Awards are nice because they’re good for business. And it means that some people in the business think that we’re doing something worthwhile. But actually the final vote is done by the fans, which is more important to me. So those things are cool. And they’re good to help me keep afloat and keep doing what we’re doing. But more important to me--the experience. Meeting these people that their music….I wonder what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for those guys. If I hadn’t been so inspired to play guitar when I was young that when the time came in my life that I was kinda lost and I was not sure what I wanted to do and the light bulb went off…maybe you’re supposed to play guitar, pay attention to this moment! It’s trying to tell you something. I mean, what would I have done if that wasn’t there? What would my life have been like?
Q: You worked with John Porter on your album Hard Believer (Alligator Records, 2009). It must have been cool to work with him.
A: Yeah, Porter’s a piece of work, man. He really is. He’s so good at what he does. You want a record producer that brings something to the project beyond the band. You don’t want to just go in there with your ideas, your songs, your experience and say, “OK, just record us. Some people do it that way and I have done it that way, but you get a guy like John Porter involved and he suggested songs and then took my songs and helped make them better. He helped make a better record out of the material that we had. And then he just knows how to make it sound good at the end. He mixes everything himself and it sounds …it just jumps outta the speakers and it doesn’t matter what speakers you listen to it on and all different formats. Porter was a pleasure to work with. We did two records with him so far.
Q: This is an extensive tour you’re on. Do you enjoy all the traveling?
A: I think it’s crazy. Anybody who does a thing like that has to be out of their mind. A month-worth of shows, traveling by bus and it’s an adventure. But it can be fun and we do have some nice people who we run into along the road.
Q: How did you come across your Syracuse drummer, Byron?
A: Oh, he was playin’ with another band. I met him on a blues cruise playin’ with Jason Ritchie’s band and Jason’s band kinda stopped and I heard about it and I looked Byron up on Facebook and said, “Hey man, what are you doin?” Cause our drummer was leaving at the time. Finally I said, “Ya know the only problem…you’re gonna have to move to California.” He said, “Man, I’m down. Just tell me when and I’ll get it together.” So we made a plan, he moved out. He worked out great. He’s a great kid. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and good spirit and he’s a talented young drummer. It’s interesting to have a guy in his 20s playing with guys in their 40s and 50s. That just goes to show that this music is timeless because he fits right in with us. And he’s keepin’ us a little bit younger in our sound. We’re kinda schoolin’ him in ways of more traditional music that we’ve been doing all along and we kinda meet in the middle. It’s a cool thing. That’s kinda one of the reasons I wanted him was cause I didn’t want just…to get another guy that has as much experience as me…I wanted to bring something new to it. A fresh kinda perspective. So Byron fits really well.
Q: How is he feeling about the show?
A: He’s excited to be coming back. I imagine all his friends and family are excited for his return. He’s a long ways from home now in California.
Q: Are you ready for some barbecue?
A: The problem with that place is I’ve done this before with my band and we arrive or just get into town from a long drive and we’re all so hungry that we just load up on heavy barbecue, all these ribs and stuff and the band gets up there and they can hardly play. They’re just loaded down with all this grease. We gotta be careful about that. Nowadays I’ve learned to save most of mine for after the show. I get a couple of ribs, I get some nutrition in me and I’ll save the rest for after the show. And then I can really load up…and go to sleep. That’s why I bring my bicycle on the road. You’re gonna wind up eating some barbecue if you’re in a blues band. Everybody feeds you barbeqce. They think that’s all we eat.
Q: Isn’t it?
A: (laughs) We were in New Mexico, man, and I love the whole new Mexican cuisine and the guy tried to feed us barbecue. And I go, “Man! We’re in New Mexico! Will you please get us some enchiladas! You guys are famous for this stuff! What makes you think I wanna eat barbecue in New Mexico!" I’m going to the Dinosaur after all. I’ll eat barbecue up there.
Q: Well, I’ll be expecting a good show…
A: We’ll try not to eat too much barbecue before the show. We’ll try to be exciting.
Los Blancos singer/vocalist Colin Aberdeen will be opening for Tommy Castro on Sunday, Nov. 20 at Upstairs at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 246 W. Willow St. Doors for the show open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and available online at www.dinosaurbarbque.com or at the bar. For more information, call 476-4937.