Daniel Castro Band packs Torch Club. RIP Johnny Nitro.
It’s Thursday, just past midnight, and I’ve been at the Torch Club to see Trampled Under Foot. I’m out back behind my house sitting in the car, listening to the rain fall on the roof. Since last Saturday night, I’ve been so busy that the days have become a blur. The more I need things to slow down, the faster I am being pulled through an undertow of phone calls, discussions and fires that need putting out — all the while sitting on this review. I can’t even come up with a title.
The Daniel Castro Band packed the Torch Club last Saturday, February 19th. It was, by all accounts, one of those nights where everything flowed perfectly — as if by stepping through the front door, you entered into a private psychedelic blues fishbowl, a musical wonderland where the whole room was having a great time and everyone was happy to see you.
The songs were more fun to dance to, the beer was colder and fresher, and it was my friend Sally Katen’s birthday. There was cake!
It was a night of celebration and laughter that ended so abruptly, I didn’t know how to put it into words, so I haven’t, until now.
Here, in my car, in the quiet of the night, I can gather my thoughts. Nobody can call me or text me and the only things moving fast are the drops of rain falling on the roof.
When I was a DJ back in 1988, my favorite dance song was MARRS’ "Pump Up the Volume," a high-energy, house montage with a beat that ran every sensory nerve in your spine from the second it cranked up. I catch a lot of flack from my friends, but, to this day, I still love that song.
There was a section where the pulsing beat chanted, "Put the needle on the record/ Put the needle on the record/ Put the needle on the record/ Put the needle on the record/ Put the needle on the record ‘til the drumbeats go like this…" and an African vocal solo followed while the beat just kept on getting better, and you twisted yourself on the dance floor until you cramped every muscle in your body.
That is what the energy was like in the room that night.
Castro gets that club flowing in a way that I can only describe as pure Castro Mojo. The Torch Club doesn’t pack it in for just any schmo. Castro is a beloved part of the Torch Club, and his band brings a sound that everyone wants, and wants to keep a secret for themselves and their closest friends. When the word gets out that the Daniel Castro Band is doing a Saturday night, everyone comes to party and brings their best party buddies.
I once said that Castro’s music is like the soundtrack to your life, and it’s true. You are taken to places you remember in your past, and you are reminded of past loves. There’s deep emotion, and then, you’re jumping around like a kid.
It might be blues and not house music, but he can "put the needle on the record" when they kick up with songs like "Let Me Love You Baby," "Empty Arms," "Talk About My Baby," "Funky for the Ice Man" and, one of my personal favorites, "Start It Up."
One of the last songs Castro sang was the song that made me such a fan of his work, "I Play the Blues for You." While this song was playing, my phone vibrated in my pocket. I loved this song and didn’t want to be interrupted, so ignored my phone.
At the end of the evening, I was talking to Castro about this review and how it was such an amazing evening. I reached in to my pocket and pulled out my phone.
The needle carrying the rhythm of laughter in the club screeched across the record running in my head and the fun was over.
There, in a text from blues singer Pinkie Rideau, were only a few words. And, without thinking, I looked at Castro and said something about it.
"What did you just say? Who are you talking about?" he asked.
"Johnny Nitro died tonight at 6 p.m."
I immediately wished I could have taken back what I had said. The look on Castro’s face let me know this had hit him hard. I later learned that he and Nitro had played together at the Saloon in San Francisco, where Nitro passed away in the room he occupied upstairs from the club. I felt terrible about having had so, so much fun, and I didn’t feel I could appropriately write about it until today.
So, I didn’t ask Castro anything about Nitro last week. I didn’t call to talk about the success of last Saturday evening. Instead, I let him have his privacy and I thought about the words to the song he sang that night:
“If you’re down and out and you hurt real good,
Come on over to the place I work,
And all your loneliness, I’ll try to sooth .
I’ll play the blues for you.
Don’t be afraid, come on in.
You might run across some of your old friends.
And all your loneliness, I’ll try to sooth.
I’ll play the blues for you.
Ain’t no big name, ain’t no big star.
I’ll play the blues for you on my guitar .
All your loneliness, I’ll try to sooth.
…I’ll play the blues for you.”
Because I didn’t personally know Johnny Nitro, I don’t feel it is appropriate to try and describe what kind of person he was, but I will include a passage from SFBlues.net. They had a link to his obituary and I’ve included it here.
(02-20) 20:41 PST SAN FRANCISCO — Johnny Nitro’s life ended like one of his gigs: in an old North Beach bar, on a Saturday night, surrounded by fans.
Mr. Nitro, whose raspy voice and low-down rhythm guitar made him a beloved fixture in the Bay Area blues scene, died Saturday evening in his apartment upstairs from the Saloon on Grant Avenue, where he performed regularly for decades.
"The paramedics came. It was chaos. But when they brought his body down wrapped in a white sheet, everyone just got quiet and started applauding. It was amazing," said Futoshi Morioka, a San Francisco guitarist who was playing at the Saloon when Mr. Nitro died.
"We finished the set because Johnny would have wanted that," Morioka said. "But then we played Bill Withers’ ‘Lean on Me’ in his honor. I just played my heart out for him."
Mr. Nitro, 59, had been suffering from heart disease and diabetes for several years. In December, he collapsed onstage and was hospitalized for several days but was back performing the next weekend, said Burton Winn of San Anselmo, the bassist for Mr. Nitro’s band, the Doorslammers.
"We’ve lost an institution," Winn said. "When he played, it was like he was in your living room, talking directly to you. He’s irreplaceable."
Despite his health problems, Mr. Nitro was among the most tireless musicians in the Bay Area, his friends and colleagues said. He played several nights a week, taught at the Blue Bear School of Music at Fort Mason and mentored dozens of younger musicians.
"I’m 10 years younger than him, and he would wear my ass out," said Kathy Tejcka of Benicia, who played keyboard for the Doorslammers. "He rocked."
Mr. Nitro, whose real name was John Newton, grew up in Sacramento. When he was 13, he saved his lunch money and bought his first guitar from a pawn shop, teaching himself to play by listening to friends’ B.B. King records.
A scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute brought him to North Beach in the 1970s, and, since then, he rarely left. He lived for a while in a 1947 panel truck and worked as a car mechanic to make ends meet.
For a short time, he worked at Sears Point and other raceways.
"I was the guy who mixed the fuel, so I was Nitro Man," he told The Chronicle in 2006, explaining the origins of his stage name.
Mr. Nitro performed with stars such as Albert Collins and Albert King, and released several albums. Collins covered one of Mr. Nitro’s original songs, "Dirty Dishes."
Like most blues artists, Mr. Nitro loved to tell a good story. Onstage at the Saloon, he’d chat with the audience, flirt with women, tell jokes and keep the crowd – which typically included local regulars and tourists from around the world – dancing all night.
"His presence onstage was irresistible," Morioka said. "He could just stand there holding his guitar but had so much charisma."
Among Mr. Nitro’s favorite quips, said Tejcka, was this: "Keep drinking triples till you’re seeing double, feeling single and getting in trouble."
Mr. Nitro himself quit drinking and smoking several years ago, his friends said.
"He was really proud of that. He knew what it was like to have a second chance," Tejcka said. "He just referred to those years as ‘back when I was really sick.’ "
Mr. Nitro’s last gig was Friday at the Saloon. He usually ended gigs with "Great Balls of Fire," but that night he veered from his routine, Tejcka said.
"Some guy in the audience called out for ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ " she said. "You know, ‘Go, Johnny, go …’ He laughed, ‘Well, you’d think I oughta know that one.’ "
Mr. Nitro is survived by his wife, saxophonist Silvia Cicardini of Antioch, and a daughter, Kirsten Newton of San Francisco.
Friends plan to play a show in his honor on March 30 at the Little Fox, 2209 Broadway, Redwood City.
Carolyn Jones: email@example.com.
Information about the Daniel Castro Band: www.danielcastro.com
More about Johnny Nitro: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/02/20/BAN81HR1FE.DTL#ixzz1FWzjRk5p