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Ninth Bar Blues

Nine Clubs Is Nothing for Ninth-Chord Lover Tommy Castro
(August 1996)

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He's hardly a pheenom at 41 but he plays with a passion, with verve, with astonishing balls,and he's attracted a growing cadre of local San Francisco and nationwide fans. Setting aside the screaming Stratocaster, the Tommy Castro vibe is benign, even beatific. Saint Thomas Guitarus. It's blues, but happy blues. The man seems genuinely to be having a smashing good time up there, night after night, and when he takes over rhythm to let Keith Crossan blow his tenor sax, his face lights up with a singularly sweet smile.

"They're a bunch of greasers," says a buddy of The Tommy Castro Band. The bigger-than-usual crowd at The Saloon, said to be San Francisco's oldest bar, on Grant Street in North Beach, looks more like bikers but is close enough. It's a Saturday night in September and Tommy has just made the cover of the local paper's weekend section, his foursome praised as "the hardest-working band in the Bay Area." The band consists of Tommy and three colleagues: Randy McDonald on bass, Shad Harris on drums, and saxophonist Keith, who formerly backed Commander Cody. They rocked the place, two dozen people dancing in an area about big enough for five.

A week or two later it's Grant and Green just two or three blocks away. "This place feels like heroin," says a nurse named Laura. She's in from Honolulu. "Tommy got that guitar from Johnny Nitro," says a lady named Sue. She's an old friend from Santa Barbara. She's talking about Johnny Nitro and the Doorslammers, another North Beach band. "They're buds," she says of Tommy and Johnny. Grant and Green is a great place to see Tommy wail. Up close and personal, and they don't care if you dance on the chairs.

Eli's Mile High Club in Oakland, a month later. This place is scary. It's not so much Eli's, but the neighborhood. A sign at the door, a big sign, suggests leaving no valuables in your car. Inside it's a mixed-color crowd. Old ladies boogie to Tommy's beat. Tommy himself makes a point of how-ya-doin' a new regular, another familiar face at the gigs.

Best Club Band was the accolade for The Tommy Castro Band at the local Bay Area Music magazine's "Bammie" awards this year. The group's got an album out now too, a real one on Blind Pig Records, you can find it in the store, this in addition to a live CD recorded and issued (and re-issued) by Myron Mu, who owns the Saloon. Even a nasty bad review by an East Coast pantywaist of the Blind Pig release, Exception to the Rule, credits Tommy with leading a West Coast blues revival.

Guitar and voice both are "brash and aggressive," says the Washington Post article before getting ugly. "Ferocious power" says Tommy's album cover. "Stellar guitar work," says an NYCD Blues review on the Internet. "The great white hope of blues-rock guitar," says Joseph Jordan in SF Live.

"Phenomenally talented," Jordan says, noting that Tommy Castro manager Herbie Herbert handled Santana and Journey too. "I was blown away by his talent and charisma," says Herbie in the liner notes for the Myron Mu release, No Foolin'."He is just naturally the genuine article," Herbie says.

"Blind Pig has made a fine choice of a blues artist to back," says NYCD Blues. "He makes your heart sing and your ears ring," says Tony Perez, Johnny Nitro's sax and front man.

Blues it is, plain and simple. One-four-five, A-D-E, C-F-G, E-A-B. Plain and simple. And loud. It's certainly loud. And clean. Tommy likes ninth chords, he plays them quick and smooth with thumb to muffle the low E-string, pinkie stabbing out for the high thirteenth. The ninths yield B.B. King plaint and James Brown funk. Tommy swears by the three Kings: Albert, B.B., Freddie. Muddy Waters and Guitar Slim covers are favorites at the clubs. I Done Got Over It. Buddy Guy, too. Your Time, Baby. Tommy's got a dog named Hook, for John Lee Hooker.

Everybody hits the floor when Tommy and the boys launch into Sex Machine. "I feel like doing it, I feel like moving it, I feel like moving it and grooving it and doing it," he says. Get up.

Tommy likes James Brown. One Friday the show at Grant and Green was canceled because Eddie Murphy was filming on Green Street. Tommy and the band got paid anyway. Tommy got to see James Brown at Maritime Hall. Tommy likes Eddie Murphy.

Over by the water, Lou's is perhaps the best venue of all for Tommy Castro fans. Tuesday nights at Lou's. Lou herself -- Laura Gillespie -- has showcased something like 1,300 bands over the course of eight years on Fisherman's Wharf. Tommy'll do Mustang Sally for the tourists there. The dance floor's off to the side so it's easy to see him tickle that black Strat. Front row seats are easy to get. But you might find Tommy himself standing on your chair when you get back from the can.

Mo's Alley in Santa Cruz on a Saturday night. "What are you doing 'way down here?," says Tommy as a San Francisco follower walks in between songs. Best club entrance of his young life. Tommy rocks the joint.

Back in the City there's Biscuits & Blues in the theater district. At Mason and Geary. Right near the cable car. Tourists like at Lou's but they can be, well, slow. "Is anybody but me having any fun?," asks Tommy one night. It's a stock line. No one answers. "Does anybody out there speak English?," he asks.

Still you gotta like Biscuits & Blues. Wednesday's Tommy's night there. One Castro fanatic placed a call from Singapore calculating that the band would just be finishing up the first set. Sure enough, a steaming Thursday morning under troubled tropical skies and the Leon Russell-Freddie King classic Me and My Guitar comes bouncing off the satellites, thundering tinnily through the receiver.

Tommy's at Blues on Thursday nights. Blues, just Blues, is another good club for getting close. Blues gets the young Marina district crowd. The girls love Tommy, buffed in a tight black T and singing those low-down blues. He's charmingly somehow disarmingly seemingly harmless and essentially lovable. Cuddly almost. An aw-shucks, Howdy-Doody goofiness contrasts with his searing electric sound. He is ferocious, sweat running down his face as the women shake like a willow tree to Muddy Waters' Mannish Boy... "I'll have all of you girls/Just standing in line/I'll make love to you woman/Gonna take my time/I'm a man..."

They love it. "Tommy Castro. He's The Man," intones Randy. Tommy played this past New Year's Eve at Blues. "I hope everybody gets rich and gets laid a lot" was his toast for '96.

Tommy likes his old Strat, the one from Johnny Nitro. It's a '66, the varnish worn off the neck and the paint worn off the back, lately by the buckle of Tommy's fancy silver belt, night after night. It's black, Tommy's guitar, like his boots and jeans, like his T-shirt and slicked-back hair. Tommy has a '59 Strat too, a gift from his wife Cori which took numero uno status for a week or so after Tommy got it back from a revamp, including new black paint job, by local ax-master Gary Brawer. But he went back to the '66. "I just like it better," Tommy says sheepishly. Cori understands. Cori, who spends most of her time taking care of their new daughter Gabriella these days, has got to understand.

Because her man's getting, well, maybe not famous exactly, but known. The CD is selling. There's radio play. TV, as The Tommy Castro Band is the house group for the HBO Late Night Comedy show now aired in the wee hours by NBC following Saturday Night Live. The band's been on tour: Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland. Longview, Texas. Denver. Salt Lake City. A quick round of the Lou's-Blues circuit in San Francisco and away again: Nebraska, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh. The East Coast.

Tommy blew away a moderate Wednesday night crowd at Manny's Car Wash in New York City this past July. Had them dancing on their seats and kept his cool even though the neon bar signs had his Fender Strat and Super Reverb combo humming something awful. He had to keep monkeying with the volume, turning it down when there were no licks to cover the hum, turning it up again to play, down again, up again. Never lost that smile.

Tommy monkeys with the volume a lot, but that's it. No fuzz, no flanger, no foot pedals. No folderol. He keeps the Strat pickup switch thrown to the low position, always, with the treble jacked up on the amp. "You get a nice, thick sound that way," he says. "A fat sound." Once, at Blues in San Francisco, Tommy had pickup trouble mid-song and had to throw to the treble position. It sounded shrill, not like Tommy at all. "Did you see that?," says Randy later. "He had to touch that switch. Mr. Fat over there."

Tommy varies his tone by playing hard with the volume low and soft with the volume up, by playing right at the bridge, by playing over the pickups. He'll palm his pick (medium) and use thumb and forefinger to pluck out haunting octave chords. The Stratocaster's whammy bar hangs limp, but not always -- Tommy'll wrestle it for a second or so every couple of weeks.

The band drove to New York from Williamsburg, Va., and would play a corporate cafeteria in Connecticut at Thursday lunchtime (weird, but the boys sold about 80 CDs there at $15 a pop -- not a bad gig). On to Boston (the House of Blues in Cambridge) Thursday night and back south to Wheaton, Maryland, for Friday night (they'd motor, in their Ford Econoline van, on up to Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, for a Saturday night job. That's about 1,600 miles, Tuesday through Saturday; six gigs. And they'd driven from California).

Fantasmagoria in Wheaton is a new club and they charged a stiff $12 on a Friday night, the same Friday that a Washington Post reviewer saw fit to trash the band's Exception to the Rule CD, not only thoroughly dissing Tommy -- and Keith and Randy and Shad -- but throwing in a sermon about flirtation and liquor in blues bars in general. It was a needledick pantywaist review. Fantasmagoria is a big club and it was far less than full when Tommy and Shad and Randy and Keith took the stage.

But Tommy smiled, and Tommy belted it out, and Shad sang his trademark Big Fine Woman, and the Stratocaster screamed, and what crowd there was loved it. Dancing aplenty.

A guy from a reborn local band called Going Going Gone remembered Randy as the bass player from The Dynatones when the old Going Going Gone opened for them at a D.C. gig in the eighties. Randy was touched. That was before Tommy joined the Dynatones, and Randy split, and Tommy called Randy to form the new band, about four years ago.

And now he's The Man, is Tommy, and he's flirting with fame. "I don't know how you keep up that smile, with hardly anyone in the club," another local Strat artist said to Tommy after the Wheaton gig. "Hey, those people paid $12 to see us," Tommy said. "You've got to give them a show."

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