Tommy Castro brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “picking and grinning.” The Bay Area bluesman played to a thrilled South Shore Room at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Saturday night, a beaming smile ever-present on his face.
Tommy Castro and the Painkillers kicked off the night as a four-piece band with Randy McDonald (bass), Mike Emerson (keyboards), Bowen Brown (drums), and Castro on a black Fender Jaguar. Vintage blues groove washed over the crowd, and out onto the floor of the casino.
They four made for a tight quartet, Emerson’s fingers rippling over one or more keyboards while Castro’s rhythmic guitar built a foot-tapping structure over McDonald’s bass and Bowen’s beat. The band covered a wide variety of styles, from the uptempo swing beat of “Two Hearts” to the slower, slinkier “Ride.”
Castro likes to talk to his audience, providing amusing interludes between songs. He opined on everything from his early experiences on the San Francisco music scene to the current state of politics.
“I have friends on both sides of the aisle, man. The thing I realized is, we have more things in common than we have differences,” he said, before launching into his song “Common Ground.”
A particularly fun number was “She Wanted To Give It To Me,” extolling the value of exercising restraint in the face of temptation.
“This next song, you can decide if it’s a true story, or total bullshit,” Castro said during the introduction. “It might be one, or it might be the other. Or it might be a combination of those two things.”
After that number, the night took on an entirely new flavor with the arrival of “the big guns,” as Castro called them. The quartet was joined onstage by Nancy Wright (tenor saxophone) and Grammy winner Steffen Kuehn (trumpet), adding a brass section to the already sizzling blues band. The group jumped immediately into the irresistible stomp of “Make it Back to Memphis,” with McDonald singing backup.
The addition of the horns kicked the show into high gear. The already enthusiastic crowd (full of obvious fans singing along with Castro) hit the next level, with many concertgoers clearly having trouble remaining in their seats. A handful of folks marked out some territory for dancing on either side of the stage, which quickly grew in population.
Castro displayed the wide range of his musical influences throughout the evening, channeling a perfect James Brown for the vocals on “Ninety-Nine and One Half,” and perfectly duplicating Albert King’s signature guitar bends on “Nasty Habit.” The frontman took the crowd on a whirlwind tour of some his favorite vintage musicians in the song “Big Sister’s Radio,” describing the experience of hearing the masters of soul and blues as a young boy, with shoutouts to Brown, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, among others.
After paying tribute to the rich history of performers that have played the South Shore Room, Castro and company wrapped up the performance with his James Brown-themed “Sex Machine,” bringing the audience to its feet, screaming for more.
Castro and Bowen returned to the stage to roars and cheers, strapping in for a slow, heartfelt encore of “Serves Me Right to Suffer,” featuring a flavorful finger picking by Castro over the drummer’s shuffling beats. The rest of the band strode out a few minutes later, joining the fun for a rollicking finish, Castro chanting “set me right, all night” as the beat wound faster and faster, before culminating in a jazzy crescendo that had the rafters shaking.
Hats off to Castro and company for a rousing performance, and many thanks for a fun-filled night of Bay Area blues and soul.
To see all of Kurt Johnson’s photos, click the LINK