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Blues Muse 

Tommy Castro owes his new barebones album to an education in modern blues


Once inspired by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles and B.B. King, then an inspiration himself, 58-year-old, Bay Area singer/guitarist Tommy Castro has come full circle and is now energized by the new crop of younger blues artists. And that influence sprawls all over his latest album The Devil You Know.

According to Castro—who is known for filthy Stratocaster licks straight out of the 50s and 60s, and a coarse, but friendly voice—utilizing a technology mostly considered blasé in the sub-30 age group, nevertheless led Castro to discover music made by artists not too far removed from that demographic; music that got him thinking.

"To be honest with you [the influence] had a lot to do with listening to this Pandora program," admitted Castro in an interview with the Source. "I would plug in a band that I like and then get exposed to a lot of other bands I'd never heard of. I was listening to bands like Gary Clark Jr. and of course how could I not be influenced by the music of the Black Keys, they're just everywhere!"

Ultimately, those listening sessions led Castro to fixate on the drums.

"Sometimes with those bands, it's just the drums and the guitar," said Castro. "So I would go into my garage with my drummer at the time and just try different things out, either with a song in mind or not."

As a result of that simple method, Castro began crafting songs with drums in the driver's seat. For his decision, that was a game changer.

"The whole less-is-more idea was really appealing to me," further explained Castro. "I looked back at a lot of the records I made in the past and I listened, and the drum beats and there weren't many variations. I started listening to the new music and I noticed that the drums are doing all kinds of different things. So we tried to make sure that we had some of that going on with this new album."

Castro should consider that mission a success.

The title track for The Devil You Know opens the record and the first 15 seconds are a doppelganger for Clark Jr.'s breakout hit "Bright Lights." Guitar growls like a junkyard dog and drums throb like a hammer and anvil as Castro weighs in with some of the most abrasive vocals he's ever applied. It isn't the stylish blues he's known for; it's primal wrought with charged emotions, and the result of a new approach.

The rest of the album follows suit, with only occasional wailing organ or aggressive tambourine joining the guitar/drum love affair. It's a cavorting blues record with no brakes, nothing like his previous, almost easy-listening releases.

"If you're starting with drums, it's going to change everything," continued Castro. "The bounce of the lyric, how the phrasing goes, the melody. Everything is going to be affected by how the rhythm is being played."

Though the writing process for The Devil You Know was different this time, in many ways the stripping of peripheral instrumentation serves to return Castro's brand of blues music back to the dusty front-porch roots of the artists who first inspired him as a 10-year-old learning to play the guitar.

A history Castro says will always be a part of him.

"I'm a blues guitar player, a blues singer and that came from years and years of listening to all the deep blues, soul and R&B from Texas to Chicago," said Castro. "I've incorporated traditional sounds in everything I do including this new album. I couldn't lose those if I tried."

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers

8:30 pm. Sat., March 29

The Belfry

302 E. Main Street, Sisters

Tickets $20 at

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