At next weekend’s second annual New England Blues Summit at the Cape Cod Resort and Conference Center in Hyannis, Castro will arrive with an intriguing new group, combining with guitarist Mike Zito in Six Strings Down.
One of the reasons Tommy Castro is such a compelling performer, aside from the consistent quality of his material, is that he’s always looking for something new to do, whether it’s by writing new songs skillfully blending rock and blues, tackling new subject matter, or trying different formats.
At next weekend’s second annual New England Blues Summit at the Cape Cod Resort and Conference Center in Hyannis, Castro will arrive with an intriguing new group, combining with guitarist Mike Zito in Six Strings Down. They hit the stage at 9:30 p.m. April 28.
Just to keep it interesting for local fans, Castro will also appear, with his usual quartet, The Painkillers, without Zito, on Saturday, April 29 at the Center for the Arts in Natick.
Castro’s most recent album is 2015’s “Method to My Madness,” on the Alligator label, his 17th album as a leader, and another vibrant blast of his rockin’ blues sound and contemporary songwriting. The California native has been paying his dues for years, touring relentlessly and churning out excellent albums. He was on the superb Blind Pig label out of San Francisco until 2007 and all of those albums are worth checking out. But Castro’s 2010 Alligator debut, “Hard Believer,” really vaulted him onto another level of national fame.
In the Blues Music awards that year, “Hard Believer” won Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, while Castro was named Male Artist of the Year and he and his band were voted Band of the Year. Castro also took home the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award that year. Other highlights of his time on the premier blues label include “The Devil You Know” album in 2013, and a live album compiled from the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruises he hosts every winter.
Zito, perhaps best known to fans as a founding member of The Royal Southern Brotherhood with Devon Allman and Cyril Neville, is a St. Louis native. Zito left the Royal Southern Brotherhood in 2014 to pursue more solo work, with his own Mike Zito and the Wheel, continuing in the same soul ‘n’ blues vein as before. This summer’s Six Strings Down tour with Castro and Zito includes just 20 dates so far.
“Working with Mike Zito just sounded like a good idea,” Castro said from his northern California home. “It was really nothing more than that. I got wind of the fact that he was between bands, and felt like it was a good time to ask him to come along with me. It’s something different to do, for both of us, and we had been talking about getting together for a couple years. As usual in these type of things, the hardest part is getting our schedules to align.
“I typically do spring and fall tours, and the rest of the year is devoted to festivals and time out at home,” Castro explained. “I won’t have a new record out until this fall, so I knew I’d be going out this spring without one to promote, so this would be a cool and different way to go. Mike is putting together a new band. The more we both thought about it, and I hate to use the cliche, but it seemed like ‘a win-win.’ It’s fun for us, but it is also a chance to blend both our audiences. A lot of our fans are the same people of course, but some of mine may not be familiar with Mike, and vice versa. So it’ll be a good time and a different show than you’d get from either one of us alone.
“I wouldn’t do this with just anybody,” Castro added. “It had to be the right guy, with the right intentions and personality. We’ll do some of my tunes, and some of his, and then a handful of covers neither of us usually do. We’re having just one rehearsal, so we aim to keep it pretty loose and pretty fresh and I can’t wait.”
Castro is in fact putting the finishing touches on his next album, but won’t be unveiling that new music on this tour.
“We’ve been working on it at Kid Anderson’s (guitarist with Little Charlie and the Nightcats) studio out here in San Jose,” Castro noted. “It is mostly done, but we have a few guests to add, and a few things to do with mixing and so on. But we’re way ahead of the game. It’s been almost two years since my last album, which is a good amount of time, so we have lots of new songs. It used to be that we’d play tunes for months on the road before recording them. Now, there are so many different ways for people to hear music, if they hear these songs before the CD is out, there’s no reason to buy it, so we have to keep it under wraps.
“This new album will be mostly my originals, along with a couple of cool, classic covers,” said Castro. “There are so many songs out there that I want to do, and if I feel like there’s a connection to a certain artist or sound, I’ll put one or two covers on every record. This one, however, may have three or four covers. For example, I’m a big Ray Charles fan, but you’ve got to find one of his songs that hasn’t already been over-done. I also found an old Elvin Bishop tune, and he’s one of my biggest influences – I wanted to be like him more than anyone else out there. I also got a really cool idea for a song with me and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, doing a song that was around when I was a teenager. And of course, seven or eight originals, so it’ll be the classic Tommy Castro record.
“I’ve gone in different directions over the years,” Castro added, “but it is all the sort of thing, that if people hear it, and they’ve been fans a while, they’ll recognize it as me.”
Castro excels at writing songs in contemporary rockin’ blues style that also deal with modern situations, people that a 2017 audience can relate to. He’s always jotting down song ideas.
“I just get ideas for songs from everywhere, sometimes from a particular topic or subject, or sometimes it’ll just start with a hook,” Castro pointed out. “I’m not generally trying to write any particular kind of song, so I’ll just see where it goes. I am able to play different styles, so some songs lean towards rock ’n’ roll, some lean to soul, or traditional blues – from B.B. King to Lightnin’ Hopkins to Keb Mo. Another tune might remind you of a Rolling Stones record. It’s just in the way they come out individually and I play around with them until I feel I get it right.”
When we talked with Castro, the news had just broken that J.Geils had died, so we asked him about how he’d viewed that band, which also brought blues elements into rock.
“The J. Geils Band, now THAT was a band, one of my top five influences growing up,” said Castro. “As a teenager, we would all listen to those albums constantly and it had a lot to do with how my own style developed. Blues and rock and soul? That’s it, the same formula, that’s what I do.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work a lot with (Geils Band harmonica player) Magic Dick for a few years now on various music cruises and such,” said Castro. “We’ve done a a few of those Legendary Rhythm and Blues Revue shows together and when I do those shows with Magic Dick and we do stuff like ‘Whammer Jammer,’ I love the fact that I get to play the part of both J. Geils and Peter Wolf. I didn’t really know J. Geils, but I did know the story of that band. Nobody wanted to follow those guys; they got a lot of opening act slots when they started out and pretty soon it became obvious they were just too good, too exciting for anyone to want to follow them.
“I had followed some of the work J. Geils did with Magic Dick in their group Bluestime, and I really liked it, the more swinging, jump blues that they did. I would guess J. Geils felt like he had nothing to prove anymore, he’d already been one of the biggest rock guitarists. He wanted to play what he felt like playing, jazz and blues, and if that made him happy, good for him. But it is sad that he’s gone.”
IF YOU GO . . . .
WHAT: New England Blues Summit
WHEN: April 28-30
WHERE: Cape Cod Resort and Conference Center, 35 Scudder Ave., Hyannis
TICKETS: $35 and up
INFORMATION: 781-254-5986 or www.newenglandbluessummit.com