Tommy Castro: Blues on the rocks

Tommy Castro, right, is backed up by The Painkillers, from left, drummer David Tucker, bassist Randy McDonald and keyboardist James Pace.
Tommy Castro, right, is backed up by The Painkillers, from left, drummer David Tucker, bassist Randy McDonald and keyboardist James Pace.

Summer starts with a bluesy sizzle this Memorial Day weekend.

Tommy Castro and The Painkillers perform Monday at The Cliffs Resort in Pismo Beach to kick off the Live on the Rocks free concert series. Local bluegrass-rock group Cuesta Ridge will open the show.

The winner of multiple Blues Music Awards honors, including B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year, Castro is known for his soulful sound rooted in blues, rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll.

Born and raised in San Jose, Castro grew up listening to the likes of blues rockers Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter, as well as older blues acts including Albert King and Taj Mahal.

“Then I came across B.B. King,” recalled the performer, who started playing guitar at age 10. “Wow! That changed my life. You could see the influence he had on everybody else I was listening to.”

By his late 20s, Castro was performing with bands throughout the Bay Area. He spent two years with The Dynatones in the late 1980s before forming his own group, the Tommy Castro Band, in 1991. 

“My focus is always the music. It’s always the songs,” Castro said. “It’s not just about going out and playing guitar.

Castro recorded about a dozen albums with the Tommy Castro Band, including 1999’s “Right as Rain,” which featured appearances by Dr. John and Delbert McClinton, and 2001’s “Guilty of Love,” which showcased John Lee Hooker in one of his final recordings. 

Castro recorded Hooker’s vocals in the blues legend’s living room as the two sat on the sofa together. 

“There he was, John Lee Hooker in his blues suit,” Castro recalled. “It was awesome.” 

Those weren’t Castro’s only brushes with fame; he rubbed shoulders with standup stars when the Tommy Castro Band spent three seasons as the house band for NBC’s “Comedy Showcase” in the mid-1990s. But his biggest thrill came when King invited the Tommy Castro Band to open his 2001 and 2002 concert tours. 

“Sitting on the stage with B.B. King … had to be the most amazing thing that ever happened to me in my career,” the performer said. 

 “We did a lot of good work together,” Castro said of the Tommy Castro Band, but he eventually came to a realization that “I wanted to go in a different direction — a little more guitar-driven, a little more rocking.”

“I knew I needed to do something different just to keep myself from being bored, to keep my band from being bored and to keep my fans, hopefully, from being bored,” said Castro, who took inspiration from his teenage children’s musical tastes. They introduced him to a slew of newer acts, including Green Day, The Black Keys and The White Stripes.

Adopting a “less is more” philosophy, Castro went from a horn-heavy big band to a “lean, mean” quartet about two years ago.

His new backup band, The Painkillers, consists of bassist Randy McDonald, keyboardist James Pace and drummer David Tucker. (Tucker replaced original drummer Byron Cage, who appears on “The Devil You Know.”)

In order to showcase his new lineup — and their energetic new sound — Castro joined forces with co-producer Bonnie Hayes to create “The Devil You Know,” his first full-length studio album since 2009’s “Hard Believer.” 

The album, released by Alligator Records in January, finds Castro and his bandmates teaming up with fellow Alligator artists Marcia Ball and The Holmes Brothers as well as guitarist-singer Tab Benoit, harmonica player Magic Dick, guitarists Joe Bonamassa and Mark Karan and vocalists Samantha Fish and Tasha Taylor. 

Ball, for instance, plays piano and sings on the track “Mojo Hannah,” a swampy Louisiana blues rocker.

“When they hear this song … I want people to get up (and start) dancing and partying and jamming,” Castro said. 

The title track, “The Devil You Know,” started with a “hills country blues riff” and grew “heavier and heavier and heavier,” Castro said, resulting in a muscular, modern sound. 

Castro credited McDonald, his collaborator, co-arranger and band road manager, with keeping him moving forward. “It’s his nature to push me not just to settle. You need somebody like that in your life,” Castro said with a laugh.


Tommy Castro and The Painkillers

1 to 4 p.m. Monday

The Cliffs Resort, 2757 Shell Beach Road, Pismo Beach


773-5000 or www.cliffsresort.com

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.