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If you’re a Blues lover, you probably read the Blues Revue. Tommy Castro is featured on the cover of their 20th anniversary issue as the “most dangerous man in the Blues industry.”
Last year, Castro and his Band walked off with four Blues Music Awards. Rarely, if ever, does an artist win more then two awards in the same year. Nary does a single artist win three. Four is unheard of. This staggering number can only be trumped by the fact that all four awards were among the most coveted categories: Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year, Contemporary Blues Album of the Year (Hard Believer/Alligator), Blues Band of the Year, and Castro earned his second "B.B. King Entertainer of the Year.”
Having seen many Blues bands, artists and legendary musicians over the years, and having met Tommy himself at different social gatherings and tributes, I still hadn’t seen the Tommy Castro Band (TCB) perform. I headed down to Harlow’s last Friday night wondering… I mean, he’s a great guitarist and easy on the eyes, but how good could they be?
The lack of parking in a three block radius was the first thing that suggested my skeptical nature was going to be in for quite a lashing. Once through the door, Harlow’s was bumpin’ and it was packed. At best, there were two seats at the bar, but everywhere you looked, there was no place to sit. I folded my jacket and put it on the floor by the corner of the stage, taking in the scene while I got my camera ready.
There was some serious electricity flying in that room.
The band was scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m., ending at 9 to make way for the second show, but they started earlier, at 7:15. As I was told by a few people that night, that is quintassential TCB - give the people what they want, and then find a way to squeeze out something extra.
The effort was obviously well-received, as I saw an endless array of happy faces in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, dancing, swinging, or tapping their feet. Every kind of dance formation seemed to be in effect while groups of people in the back booths pumped their hands in the air.
I watched Castro as he moved around the stage, playing alongside all the band members and maximizing his exposure to the crowd. To the left were tables with people sitting. To the right, tables and booths, and in the center, his dancing constituents. He wanted everyone to get their money’s worth, and I really do mean everyone. Even me.
As a photographer, you try to get as good a shot as you can for whatever print source you’re representing, and I’ve loved photographing Blues artists because they are so accessible. Castro made no bones about coming right up to the edge of the stage, right in my face as I stood maybe two feet from his guitar, praying for at least one picture to be in focus as I hit the shutter on my camera like a machine gun. He took his time standing there, smiling and gesturing to the crowd, letting me get my bearings before moving aside to let saxist, Keith Crossen come upstage for his solo.
Then, Castro was circulating again, stepping back while all the band members took their turn. Tom Poole on trumpet. Tony Stead on keys. Crossen on tenor and baritone sax. Bass man and fashion icon Scot Sutherland, with Ronnie Scott on skins, ruled the engine room.
There was no back-porch mojo working in this joint. That band brought R&B, funk, rock and some Latin teasing into a twisted cable of electrifying Blues like I never saw in any club at any time by anyone.
The band left the stage at 8:30. I no more than had enough time to look to see if my jacket was still in the corner before they came back out and reclaimed the stage for a 35-minute encore of the James Brown hit “Sex Machine.”
Let me say it again… a 35- MINUTE ENCORE!
In traditional form, each band member showcased their talent before exiting the stage. Castro’s guitar solo was followed by the announcement that Keith Crossen has been nominated this year for his own BMA Award. Castro then bid good night and took leave backstage.
Without missing a beat, Crossen and Poole presented their 40-plus years of friendship in a brilliantly crisp section that received thunderous applause. Following suit, Tony Stead took everyone to piano school and the room answered with a standing ovation. Sutherland finally brought the house down with a funk-loaded solo while simultaneously sliding across the stage in his black-and-white shoes, leaving Ronnie at the helm of a massive drum solo. To the delight of the crowd, which still remained in standing ovation, at the end of Ronnie’s solo, the band came back out for the third time to collectively say “thank you” and “good night.”
As the band and road crew cleared the stage, Castro was making hiimself busy greeting literally everyone and anyone who came to the merchandise table. Some bought CDs or t-shirts, others took a photo, while other just came by to chat him up and say hello. He served everyone the same way, with a smile, a handshake and a thank you.
A lot of adjectives can be thrown into this story in an attempt to illustrate the musical prowess and technical dynamics of Tommy Castro and his band. Now, having seen them perform together, I can’t imagine the years of hard times and hard work that have pre-empted their recent success. I now see why the Tommy Castro Band won four BMA Awards. It’s not so hard to believe.
To cast your nomination for Keith Crossen at this year’s BMA’s, go to: www.blues.org/bluesmusicawards and look for the link to this year’s nominations.