“Keep on Smilin’ ” was an appropriate song for Tommy Castro to cover on his new CD.
During his shows, and I’ve seen a lot of them, Castro moves about the stage with his chest puffed out, his short sleeves revealing a tattooed biceps flexed and hoisting a guitar. And there’s a smile on his face.
The smile is contagious and it spreads throughout the aisles.
This much was the same on a Saturday night, Dec. 20, in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe’s South Shore Room. But this show was different, too.
Keith Crossan and Tom Poole were not there, the longtime saxophone and trumpet players for Castro, a San Francisco nightclub legend who burst onto the recording scene 20 years ago. While Castro is an unapologetic bluesman, he has always reveled in soul, balancing an electric Chicago neon glow with a Memphis horns groove.
Castro and his usual sound constantly sell out the South Shore Room. Besides Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang, that doesn’t happen all that often for a blues player.
But Castro has a new approach. And he says some people are displeased. None of them appeared to attend the Tahoe show, another sellout.
“People like their artists to remain the same, and I can’t do it. It’s suffocating,” Castro told Tahoe Onstage in an interview before the concert. “Music is a living thing. It’s not meant to stay the same.”
So this year Tommy Castro and the Painkillers made a record, sans horns, “The Devil You Know.”
Half of the songs at the 102-minute Harrah’s show were from the new record and, as I’ve said, nobody seemed to mind.
“Let’s have all the fun we can stand while we still can,” the 59-year-old Castro told the crowd at the start of the show.
Coming in I knew about the phenomenal new band arrangement: bass player/tour manager Randy McDonald is back after a decadelong hiatus, keyboardist James Pace has played with some of blues’ greatest living artists, and drummer David Tucker is as powerful, as Castro likes to say, as a locomotive.
What surprised me was Castro’s new look. The tight, black T-shirt was gone, in its place a purple tie-dye. He’s grown long what for years was short, slicked back hair. As the show went on, some strands bobbed over his eyes and he wore too-long blue jeans, rolled up at the cuffs: Elvis on top, self-deprecating bluesman on the bottom. A rock and roll combination, to be sure.
The show did, indeed, end with a rocker, “Shake Hard the Blues,” as the encore song. Longtime fans were sent back to 1999 with surprising renditions of “Callin’ San Francisco” and “I’m a Chairman” from the “Right as Rain” album. And Castro did what he does best, singing extended soulful grooves, “She Wanted to Give it to Me” and Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
The moment I enjoyed the best, however, was the part of the Wet Willie cover where the music stops and Castro screams, “You’re just hanging out in the local bar, wondering who the hell you are.”
We know who you are, Tommy. Keep coming to Tahoe and, like you, we will “Keep on Smilin.’ ”
Tommy Castro and the Painkillers
Dec. 20, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room
“The Devil You Know”
“When I Cross The Mississippi”
“She Wanted To Give It To Me”
“The Whale Have Swallowed Me”
“Serves Me Right To Suffer”
“Gotta Serve Somebody”
“Chairman of the Board”
“Callin’ San Francisco”
“Keep On Smilin’ ”
“Shake Hard The Blues”
Tahoe Onstage images by Kurt E. Johnson