Sunday, September 27, 2009
Review: tommy castro band, stargazers, colorado springs, 9/23/2009
It's around 10:30 at night and Tommy Castro and his band have just finished the second of two blistering sets of knock-down hard-drivin' superheated blues and R&B. Men are palpitating and women are having uncontrollable physiological reactions all over the place. And everybody's either grinning, sweating from dancing out of their seats from up in the rafters down to stage center, giving high-fives, or gasping for breath.
Then Tommy Castro does something I've seen very few other bands do and do well: he invokes the immortal spirit of the Godfather of Soul, the previously hardest workin' man in show business, soul brother number one, of course I'm talkin' about Mr. James Brown. I'm not sure I'm hearing my ears right. Is this cat going into the classic opening rap that JB went into prior to slamming into one of the all-time great funk shakers of all time "Get Up (I Feel Like Being) A Sex Machine"? Yeah, and more: Not only starting out faithful to the original - enough so that closing your eyes you can almost hear a near perfect channeling the slightly gravelly voice of James Brown - but with an extended jam allowing all the band members to solo and stretch out.
Sax player Keith Crossan, who - with his own year-old solo CD out called "Beatnik Jungle" - has the style and chops and pedigree you only get from putting in almost 40 years - 20 of those with Tommy Castro - playing and sitting in with everybody from John Lee Hooker to Huey Lewis and dozens of top names in between.
Horn player Tom Poole, who, like Crossan, has a varied background playing and recording with BB King, Etta James, and Boz Scaggs among many others can blow with the best of them (and has). Poole and Crossan together make brilliant counterpoints and accentuations to the Tommy Castro band. Tommy had told me earlier during a chance to talk after the sound check that early in his career, touring with a 4 piece band with Keith Crossan was the best he could do, but now with Tommy Poole and a keyboard player - currently Tony Stead - Tommy says "this is the band I always wanted".
Tony Stead - who, (folks, I can't make this stuff up) has been the keyboardist for Sly and The Family Stone and has played and recorded with a veritable whos-who of r&b, blues, and soul acts like Johnny Adams, Ike Turner, Little Anthony, The Pointer Sisters, and on and on and on. I wish I had hours to talk to each of these guys. Amazing talent.
Drummer Ronnie Smith whose career diversity with acts like Gospel Hummingbirds, Jon Hammond Group, Ron Thompson & the Resistors is reflected in his style of play which brings not only solid funk rhythms and grooves to the band, but also island and world influences in his dynamics and fills.
Scot Sutherland - whose bass playing ranks with the some of the best I've ever heard - has soul and a big R&B punch to drive the band with Ronnie Smith. He also makes for one of the more animated and enjoyable solos given that during chorus and refrain sections of many of the songs, he's helping drive the boat with a near stoic understated stage presence and foundation work that - like a Chevy 454 engine - you always feel underneath you purring along, but it explodes in personality and style right when you put the pedal down.
But it's Tommy Castro who prowls onstage with the mischievous confidence of someone totally in control of their instrument and ready to have some fun that draws us all into the act. His kind of performance is a little bit like someone who's letting you in on a secret that you can appreciate but can't fully grasp the ramifications of until later: he and his '66 strat and Fender Super Twin turned up to 10 aren't backing down until you're lifted up out of your seats.
Tommy Castro goes way back, has a bazillion awards and accolades - like being winner of the 2008 Blues Music Award for Entertainer Of The Year, was the house band on NBC’s Comedy Showcase for 3 years in the early 90’s, has played with virtually everybody who's anybody from Albert King to Carlos Santana, and has alot of smarmy reviews flowing with the milk and honey of sweet adverbs and adjectives written over the years pleading with you to understand how great he is.
But I say this: this guy can kick ass. Period.
If you're already a fan, you know this. If you're unfamiliar with his work but like blues music in general, start by looking up some outtakes on YouTube. Some of them are pretty badly done with cell phone video cameras with really bad sound quality. But some of them - do a search in YouTube for "Tommy Castro Nasty Habits" (try here) which rips off a clip from his "Live at the Fillmore" DVD - will show you this guy really is "all that". Then, buy a copy of his new CD.
His latest CD (out of an incredible building catalog of releases from several labels) is "Hard Believer" (Alligator/August 2009) already beat out sales of recent releases by Delbert McClinton, Robert Cray and Robben Ford - and also debuted at #2 on the Billboard Blues Chart! To say the CD is loaded with solid material is an understatement, but to see him perform about half the tracks at the show last night at Stargazers Theater and Event Center - you know, that round-topped place where the Colorado Springs townies first saw Star Wars a million years ago (more about Stargazers in a minute) - was nothing short of phenomenal. This band can play!
Tommy had told me one of favorite songs to play (and also on the new CD) is Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" because it just "feels so good" playing it. And if you know the original, you know its got a mild kind of funky soulful beat to it. But when Castro plays it he adds his own ferocity to the driving mean funk that the band kicks out, and in the case last night, he came off stage and walked all through the audience playin' it with a grit and determination that made believers out of everybody.
Also off the new CD, the fast paced "Make It Back To Memphis" (which he claims was motivated from a "true" story about hauling back to Memphis after the Blues Music Awards in Tunica Mississippi last year in a friends Cadillac, out on the open road, running out of gas) is also one of his current favorites to play.
Besides breathing new life into Bob Dylan and James Brown covers, we also heard ballsy renditions of material from Muddy Waters and Wilson Picket mixed in with other new and classic Tommy Castro band crowd pleasers like "Nasty Habits".
Warming up the Stargazers stage last night were BJ Estares and Randy Hawke from the Colorado Springs based band Route 61 performing somewhat unplugged acoustic funked out blues run-downs that got everybody in a great mood.
If you haven't been to the venue that is the structure of the original United Artist Theater off Pikes Peak Avenue that took turns being "the Old Colorado Opry", churches, and the site of all-night raves before being brought back into control and cleaned up by new owners John and Cindy Hooton, you're in for a treat. Yes, they do mild- mannered business events there too by day, but by night - and especially with their increasing niche of showcasing some of the best touring and regional blues talent - they've become one of the best go-to venues I've seen locally in a while. (And have a cole-slaw salad they offer as a side dish to sandwiches that could be it’s own food group, it’s that good). (And yes, I admit I’ve been suspicious of places that try to be a regional music venue that serve food and alcohol also, but here: it totally works.)
I talked with a long-time Tommy Castro fan from Beulah, Colorado who had made the trek to Stargazers to see the band and he said there's nothing like this venue anywhere, especially in the southern half of the state - and they wouldn't have missed the show for anything.
I also talked with Tommy Castro fans who were vacationing in Colorado Springs from Kansas. They're new fans of Castro and missed him when the band toured through Topeka recently and just knew they had to come to the gig to enjoy the show.
I asked Tommy backstage if he knew he was drawing people from not only Boulder (where they had just played a few night ago) and Denver but also from Kansas! His eyebrows went up and he was, like, "realllly?" and I'm, like, yeahhh, man, you don't even know. I told him the best fan story I heard last night prior to the show: a woman had flown to Colorado from San Jose, California to meet her husband who was working long-term in Denver for the Tommy Castro show in Colorado Springs! It was their 4th wedding anniversary and they wanted to spend it "with" Tommy Castro!
So if you missed this performance, keep your ears open for the band's next pass through town: they've been here four times now thanks to local promoters Amy and George Whitesell of "A Music Company, Inc" and Castro's following - as evident from the 300 plus people attending last night (from all over the country) is just growing and growing. Gear up, go online, buy the latest CD from the Tommy Castro Band, and get in the groove.
More photos from the Tommy Castro Band's gig reviewed above can be found at my Flickr photo gallery here.