By Nick Hatzinikolis
I have to confess: I love what I do for SMASH magazine, and here’s why. I’m lucky enough get the opportunity to talk to and spend some time with the most talented and coolest people in the music industry. An example of this is when I talked to blues guitarist and entertainer extraordinaire Tommy Castro and his incredible bass player and current Painkiller, Randy McDonald, for almost an hour a few weeks ago.
After a year and a half absence from the area, Tommy Castro and the Painkillers will blaze onto the Kalamazoo State Theatre stage on April 1st —no fooling! With them will be special guest and local favorite Larry McCray.
Tommy shared with me, as we began our conversation, that last year was the first time in about 20 years that he and the band had not made to the Kalamazoo area, and said that he and the band could not wait to play the Kalamazoo State Theatre. “So we will just will have to party twice as hard when we get there to make up for the lost time!” Tommy exclaimed.
Tommy Castro is a fierce and fiery road warrior who fervently delivers his driving, blues-soaked, soul-baring music to fans all over the world. The road is where he honed his guitar playing to a razor’s edge. It’s where he learned how to captivate an audience with his intensely passionate vocals and his memorable songs, licks and grooves. It’s where he learned to turn his band into a dynamic, high-performance engine, able to bring down the house with a soulful ballad and then bring fans to their feet with a blistering blues rocker. In the words of Blues Revue, “Tommy Castro can do no wrong”.
Painkiller and bass thumper Randy McDonald brings 20+ years of both road and studio experience. He had his own CD out called “On The Wide Side”. His ten-year gig with The Dynatones, and a more recent decade with The Tommy Castro Band, have paid off by gifting him with extraordinarily deep grooves.
“Randy McDonald creates bass lines as intricate as any I’ve ever heard, weaving through Castro’s guitar work,” said Philip Elwood of The San Francisco Examiner. And lest one entertain ideas about bass players making peculiar front men, Randy’s epic touring schedule (he’s logged well over a million miles) has borne fruit in the rousing persona of roadhouse party ringleader.
You may have seen Randy step to the mike on occasion to lead the band through any number of raucous R&B and original tunes. “Randy McDonald creates bass lines as intricate as any I’ve ever heard, weaving through Castro’s guitar work” — Philip Elwood (San Francisco Examiner).
Castro formed The Painkillers in 2012, creating a lean, mean four-piece lineup and leaving his tight horn section behind. Fueled by Tommy’s voice and guitar, plus bass, drums and keyboards, the band released The Devil You Know in 2014, winning over hordes of new fans. Castro stripped his music down to its raw essence, with the band hammering its point home on the bandstand. Jambands declared, “Tommy Castro And The Painkillers are a crackling, stripped-down band with plenty of grit and a rocking soul.”
Originating from the San Francisco area, Castro, along with his band, The Painkillers (in addition to bassist Randy McDonald are keyboardist Michael Emerson and drummer Bowen Brown), play music that is guaranteed to fire up fans and leave critics searching for new words of praise. Billboard says the band plays “irresistible contemporary blues-rock” with “street-level grit and soul”.
Now, with Method To My Madness (Alligator Records), the group turns the intensity up another notch. I asked Tommy and Randy about the difference with this new album versus his past efforts. “My main objective when making a new album,” says Castro, “is to do something different from before. I’ve always been a blues guy; it’s what I’m meant to do. But I’m always listening and watching as well as reacting to what’s going on in the outside world. I also have been experimenting with my guitar tone(s), the use of different amps and mic’s and such. But my songwriting approach has been constantly keep the music fresh.”
Randy and Tommy were in agreement that the hardest thing these days, whether on stage or with the release of a new album, is to keep his loyal fan base happy and try to capture new fans. Randy said, “It’s a tough balance sometimes. That’s why we try to do something different with each album.” Tommy jumped in to say, “maybe the next album is acoustical, that’s just something I’ve never done before.”
Castro wrote or co-wrote 10 of 12 tracks, and they are raw, and rocking, from the opening one-two punch of everyman anthem Common Ground. There’s also a brand new video, Common Ground, which Tommy and Randy say is an observation of world events and how we all need to seek common ground. Tommy said, “The video is fast and busy and there’s a lot of news clips of what’s happening currently in and around the world with the message, ‘Man, regardless of political affiliation we all have to work together. Because we really do have more in common than we like to admit or acknowledge’.”
We talked a few minutes about the Kalamazoo music scene. Tommy and Randy reminisced about the various blues clubs that were once jumping and jiving in Kalamazoo but are no longer around. “Club Soda was a place we used to play back in the day with the Dynatones. Man, that goes way back!”
Tommy continued on to say “I have been to Wonderful’s a few times and after a show, and everyone wanted to buy me a drink, and back in those day I would accept them and we would party all night long, and I mean all night long! I did hurt myself because we partied so hard! But I haven’t drunk anything in 12 years, but man, did we have some great times.”
When asked about his musical influences growing up Tommy told me that he picked up a guitar at age 10. He was mesmerized by Eric Clapton, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield, and other blues rock players. As he got older, Castro discovered the blues guitar work of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Elmore James and the deep-rooted soul of singers like Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and James Brown. By his 20’s he was playing in a variety of San Francisco-area blues and soul bands.
Castro joined Warner Brothers’ artists The Dynatones in the late 1980s before forming The Tommy Castro Band in 1991. He released his debut album in 1996 on Blind Pig and hit the road hard, picking up new fans everywhere he went.
In the mid-1990s The Tommy Castro Band served as the house band for three seasons on NBC Television’s Comedy Showcase (airing right after Saturday Night Live), bringing him in front of millions of viewers every week. During the 1990s and into the 2000s, Castro released a series of critically acclaimed CDs for Blind Pig, Telarc and 33rd Street Records, as well as one on his own Heart And Soul label.
Castro joined Alligator Records in 2009, releasing Hard Believer to massive acclaim. He won four of his six career Blues Music Awards including the coveted B.B. King Entertainer Of The Year Award (the very highest award a blues performer can receive). His song Hard Believer took first place in the blues category of the International Songwriting Competition.
His next release, 2011’s Tommy Castro Presents The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue–Live! was a fiery collection of the highlights from a series of live performances anchored by Castro and an all-star collection of nationally recognized blues musicians, including Rick Estrin, Michael “Iron Man” Burks and Joe Louis Walker.
Tommy and Randy were both excited and wanting to talk about the upcoming Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue cruise in October. Tommy said “It’s 20- 25 of the biggest and the best blues musicians anywhere! We have our scheduled sets that we play, but it’s something to see Taj Mahal or Tab Benoit or any other artist at their own shows, that’s something we really look forward to doing, since we don’t get that opportunity when we are on the road.”
Tommy shared a story: “Tab Benoit has this after hours’ jam session that he hosts, which he calls ‘the bacon jam’, and here’s why. Tab and a bunch of other artists will jam well into the morning or until they smell bacon being fried for breakfast for the passengers on the ship. That’s when they know it’s time to go to bed!”
If you have ever made it to a Tommy Castro and the Painkillers show in the past, you will notice a few things. Tommy and his band mates not only put on a hell of a show but they are the nicest and fan-friendly guys in the music business. Tommy and band will spend as much time with their fans as needed or wanted to say hi, take a picture or get an autograph. In my opinion, a lot of bands out there can learn from these guys how to handle a crowd like they do.
Catch Tommy Castro and the Painkillers with special guest Larry McCray on Friday April 1st at the Kalamazoo State Theatre. Doors open at 6:30pm. Tickets are available at the Kalamazoo State Theatre box office and at the usual outlets.