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Tight Knit

Bluesman Tommy Castro navigates these streets

By Geoff Wong

SOME 28 years ago, San Jose native Tommy Castro knew he'd make at least one enthusiastic fan every time he performed. In an anecdote often told by his late mother, the bluesman's then-1-year-old daughter, Jasmine, "would get up on top of my guitar case, like it was a little stage, and dance around while I was playing," says the current San Rafael resident.

Now a Silicon Valley professional and still a South Bayer, Jasmine is very likely to be in the audience as her father's upcoming high-profile local gig as the Tommy Castro Band plays the 25th Annual Metro Fountain Blues Festival on Saturday along with Etta James & the Roots Band, Chris Cain and others.

"That's the only place in the world where I've known people for 40 years. I find friends of mine that I went to elementary school with," says Castro. "I actually have had people come up to me that I've known as a kid."

A charismatic vocalist and a hearty guitarist, Castro recalls hearing plenty of music growing up in San Jose during the late '60s. There were occasional outdoor events called "be-ins." The Santa Clara County Fair also provided an all-ages venue for catching fresh music. He remembers attending concerts there by Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Sly & the Family Stone and, a personal favorite, Elvin Bishop.

"I'm not sure who promoted these things or how they came about," he says. "But there was live music in different parks around, and we would go to those because we were young and not able to go to nightclubs and bars."

Castro drew upon FM radio's underground sounds of the day and knowledgeable friends to help him make the transition from contemporary rock & roll back to historical blues. His love of Cream, for example, started with Eric Clapton and the rock & roll supergroup power trio and lead him back to the likes of Freddie King.

Early in his musical career, Castro was a band member with distinct responsibilities within various groups' sound. He was able to exercise different musical muscle but never got a full workout.

"I had been the lead singer and second guitar player in a San Jose band for a few years, my good friends NiteCry," he says. "So I just filled in where needed on guitar. It wasn't really my job.

"Then I moved to San Francisco, joined a band called the Dynatones and went on tour with them for a couple of years," he continues. "In that band, I was the guitar player, not the singer, since they already had one. I thought, ‘Wait a minute! Sooner or later I've got to get it together to where I'm the guitar player and the singer and start my own band!'

He did just that in 1991, forming the Tommy Castro Band. As heard on their latest release, Soul Shaker, it's very much a group situation for them, with the emphasis on tightly arranged original songs. "Let's Give Love a Try" is a full-on swaggering rocker and "What You Gonna Do Now" is a soulful up-tempo number, while "No One Left to Lie To" is an emotionally naked blues lament.

"These days, our focus has mainly been mainly on songs. We're really a song-based act these days, and it never really has been about me," states Castro. "I suppose it might've been in the very beginning—me, my guitar—that whole thing. But right away, it wasn't long before this lineup—Randy McDonald on bass, Keith Crossan on saxophone, and myself—we became a band. And we really started to operate more like a band than a solo guy with some accompaniment. We always work the music up, and everybody has a lot of input."

In addition to Jasmine and other friends and relatives, Castro says he often sees other families in his audiences. And the cross-generational musical bonding does his bluesman's heart good.

"The blues might be the only thing I've ever known where families go off and listen to the music together," he reckons. "Because a guy and his 15-year-old kid often come to shows like ours. The guy's my age, and he's been a guitar player since he was a kid and probably likes this music.

"Moms and dads and kids generally listen to completely different music. So to be able to find a music like that in common, it's a very cool thing to see."

Friends of Castro

The blues community tends to be a tight-knit community, both out of tradition and necessity. When asked if he had any thoughts about his fellow Metro Fountain Blues Festival musicians, Castro raved about two of the other participants.

Etta James: "It doesn't get better than Etta James. She's the blues singer that every woman aspires to. They all want to be Etta James. She wrote the book, basically. Great performer, very entertaining and she's got a singing style that's completely her own."

Chris Cain: "Cain I credit with really inspiring me to do what I'm doing. I was a weekend warrior musician, and it just seemed too good to be true (to play full-time). And I'd go out and see Cain playing in the same kind of clubs NiteCry was playing at the time. And I then I saw him make a record. The next thing you know, he was playing in Europe and all over the country, meeting B.B. King and Ray Charles. It was one of the main things that made me want to take a serious shot at this. I think I've told him that in that the past, but he probably forgot."

The 25th Annual Metro Fountain Blues Festival with Tommy Castro, Etta James, Craig Horton, David Jacobs-Strain, Lara Price and Chris Cain happens Saturday (May 14) at the San Carlos Plaza on the SJSU campus. The show begins at 12:30pm. A $5 donation is requested. For more information, call 408.924.6262.

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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