There’s working hard and there’s working smart | AspenTimes.com
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There’s working hard and there’s working smart

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GLENWOOD SPRINGS In the mid-’80s, around age 30, after years of putting aside any thoughts of a proper career so he could keep his nights free to play the blues in crummy dives, Tommy Castro finally had what he called his moment of clarity.”At a loss with what I was going to do with my life, it dawned on me that I was happiest playing music, and was best at playing music, entertaining people,” Castro said. “I decided I was willing to be poor to be able to do that.”So Castro, putting all his chips on the blues, picked himself up from his native San Jose and moved to San Francisco. He bought a battery-powered amp, figuring much of his time would be spent busking on street corners. Quickly enough, that moment of clarity was obscured by darkness.”I sucked at it,” Castro said of playing the streets. “It’s very territorial, and I wasn’t up for fighting someone over a street corner.”

The failure on the streets, though, wasn’t the end of the road. Castro got his foot into an established band, Johnny Nitro & the Door Slammers, when the regular guitarist declined to play the group’s steady Monday night gig. Castro was happy to play any night of the week, and that job led to employment with the touring band, the Dynatones. After two years in the Dynatones, Castro formed his Tommy Castro Band in 1991. And while Castro is still singing the blues – his song-oriented take includes as much soul-style as guitar-shredding – he’s not down in the dumps over his career.”Once I started the Tommy Castro Band, there was never a need for me to do anything else,” Castro said. “We ran right smack-dab in the middle of the blues revival that started in the mid-’80s with Stevie Ray Vaughan. We could play a gig in San Francisco every night – and we did. We didn’t give it any thought. We didn’t know any better.”Waiting so long to find success – Castro’s debut CD, 1995’s “No Exceptions,” was released when he was 40 – wasn’t particularly difficult. Castro never expected to make his living with his music.”I never thought it was going to happen,” he said. “I thought making a living as a musician was too good to be true. I didn’t think I was all that good. But I couldn’t stop myself.”Castro says he’s shed much of that identity, of the bluesman scraping by, taking any gig that comes his way. For most of the last 12 years, he has been on the San Francisco label Blind Pig, where his labelmates have included Luther Allison, Elvin Bishop and Junior Wells. His discography counts 10 albums, including “Painkiller,” released on Blind Pig last month; guests on those recordings have included Dr. John, Delbert McClinton and John Lee Hooker, whose final recording session was captured on Castro’s 2001 album, “Guilt of Love.” For several years, Castro’s band was included on B.B. King’s blues package tour, which featured John Hiatt and Buddy Guy.

“There’s working hard and there’s working smart,” said Castro, whose band – still featuring original members, bassist Randy McDonald and saxophonist Keith Crossan – plays tonight at the Buffalo Valley Inn in Glenwood Springs. “I used to work hard and smart, but now I’ve learned to work smarter. I make better use of my time.”Perhaps the smartest artistic decision Castro has made is to focus on songs, rather than compete with the likes of B.B. King and Buddy Guy in the guitar department. Castro’s albums tend to emphasize song structure over soloing; he stresses the entire band has creative input into the songs rather than spotlighting Castro as a one-man show.”I don’t play a lot of guitar. That’s not my thing. I play songs and I sing and I’m a bandleader,” he said. “We all concentrate on the song being the main thing. The song itself is the thing that sticks out.”If I existed on how well I play guitar, I’d be out of business long ago.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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