A new album, a new band, a new sound, and Tommy Castro says he’s feeling like a teen again. With The Painkillers, Castro released The Devil You Know last month and claimed the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Blues Albums chart. Here the R&B frontman and his pared-down lineup make the kind of bluesy rock that recalls music he listened to as a teenager, Castro says, songs by acts like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. But hear him talk about his new direction and you get a sense that youthful exuberance also has him thinking of yesteryear.
The change has been a long time in the making. Castro made his debut on the Chicago-based blues label Alligator Records with 2009’s Hard Believer, and the record did well. The following summer, Castro raked in a handful of top honors at the Blues Music Awards. But he was running out of ideas, and fighting against recycling the same old stuff.
“I kept trying to figure out artistically what my next phase was going to be like,” Castro said. “I started to feel like I wanted to do something different, and I really wasn’t sure for a while what that would be.”
He wanted to try making music that was “a little bit more edgy.” He was also looking for a more guitar-driven sound, and found inspiration in modern blues artists who were making big music with small bands. Castro was performing with a much bigger band then, complete with a horns section, and he’d been doing that for years.
“I felt a little bit like I was hiding behind a larger group,” Castro says.
Setting a new course took time. He had to give his old band some notice. He had to form a new band – one with just drums, bass, and keys to back his guitar and vocals – and then the group had to mesh.
“When you are in a smaller band as a guitar frontman, you’re going to have to play more; you’re going to have to be confident that what you’re doing is going to be good enough without the help of a large group,” Castro says.
He had to write new material; he has a writing or co-writing credit on nine of the 13 tracks on The Devil You Know.
He also had to record a new album. Soon after The Painkillers made their debut on stage with Castro in 2012, the group released a single including the well-received track “Greedy,” but The Devil You Know would be Castro’s first full-length release in nearly five years. In this task he had some expert assistance. An ample roster of blues artists lent their talents to the album – guitarist Joe Bonamassa, singers Samantha Fish and Tasha Taylor, harmonica player Magic Dick, and singer-guitarist Tab Benoit (an artist Castro cites as inspiration for his musical change of direction). He’s also joined on the album by R&B pianist and singer Marcia Ball, with whom he’ll be sharing the bill at The State Theatre this Friday night.
The new record has a refreshed sound, but one that’s still quintessentially Tommy Castro, he says – it’s still his soulful singing voice and it’s still his bluesy guitar playing.
“The fact that I was a ’60s kid raised on rock and roll is in there, all the time. It’s still a form of blues, soul music, and rock and roll, which is what I’ve always done,” Castro says.
• For more information about Tommy Castro, visit tommycastro.com.