Tommy Castro faces a midlife crisis

Blues singer and guitarist pares down the sound

Photo by Dana Curley and Brett Colvin

Guitarist/songwriter Tommy Castro, one of the West Coast blues scene’s hardest-working and most ferociously engaging figures, swings back into Boulder tonight for a midweek gig at the Outlook. For a guy who plays the Blues Cruise once or twice a year and festivals around the nation, even taking his blues/soul gig to Europe (he has a date in Paris later this month), Boulder nonetheless holds a special place in his itinerary.

For one thing, we’ve got his wheels.

“Y’know,” he told us in a phone interview last weekend, “we leave our bus parked in Boulder.

“It just doesn’t make sense to bring it all the way back to California. We have gigs at home, but we can get to them easily enough with our own vehicles. But the big bus goes to a really cool mechanic who stores it for us, takes care of it and checks it out for us before the next big trip.”

But it’s also the venue — the Outlook has matured into one of Boulder’s most vital stages, bringing in touring blues acts and giving generous stage time to local up-and-comers. Castro, for one, is quick to give it up for Dan King and his operation.

“I love that place because [King] is doing it for the right reasons,” Castro says. “It’s a place for people to come and hear us, there just aren’t that many venues for the kind of music that we do. … The hotel is this really cool ‘green’ hotel; it’s not just some corporate Holiday Inn type thing, and we’ve got our bus being serviced in Boulder. So we’re comfortable there, it’s a nice little stop for us where we feel like we have friends.”

Castro is making a run across the Lower 48 this fall fronting a four-piece band, something of a departure from the many years he augmented his workingman-blues gig with two- and three-piece horn sections. This year’s incarnation is called The Painkillers, a name borrowed from a Castro release from 2007 and including longtime bassist Randy McDonald, a stalwart member of the larger Tommy Castro band for many years.

Castro said he got the inspiration to trim the gig down from some generational perspective, part of it looking backward, and part looking forward.

“I was just … thinking. What was going to be my next phase, y’know? At one point, the band got really big, and we did that for a while and enjoyed it, for about four years.

“And then, I think I just kind of got tired of the ‘wall of sound,’ and I just thought that I should bring it down a bit. I’ve never tried this; in my whole career I’ve never had a band without horns. And my son is listening to all kinds of classic rock these days … Pink Floyd, the Stones … and I realized that there are so many great bands that didn’t use horns. And a lot of them were some of my biggest influences, and I was thinking that maybe it was time for me to do something that was … a little more guitar-driven.”

We asked if Castro, who slings a fairly brutal axe when he gives himself room enough to play it, if he had to start thinking differently about how he played, how he filled out the sound, without all the brass behind him.

“Yeah, and that was all part of the deal,” Castro says. “I wanted to push myself a little. I’m using a couple of different guitars and a few effects. Back in the original band, I only ever really used a [Fender] Super-Reverb [amplifier] with a Strat plugged into it, and that was my sound. No effects at all. I put out so many records with that, and I went back and listened to them, and I thought to myself, ‘Man that guitar sounds exactly the same on every single song.’”

He laughs a little at the epiphany. “Maybe I should do something a little different now.”

These are dicey choices, of course. It’d be easy enough to reprise, for example, his 2009 release Hard Believer, his debut CD for Alligator Records and one of the genre’s most vital releases of that year. The CD and title track buried the longtime Bay Area musician with awards and accolades, both locally and nationally, feeling a little like the capstone of a near 20-year solo career.

Castro agrees it was a stage-lights moment for him. But is it time to get a little dirt under the fingernails?

Castro laughs. “Yeah, I’m having a midlife crisis, I think. Gotta rock out!” he says.

Tommy Castro plays the Boulder Outlook Hotel & Suites Oct. 11. Call 303-443-3322.