Lake Tahoe gets a white Christmas – and a blues one, too

Tahoe Onstage
Mont Blues Ball 2: Tommy Castro & The Painkillers, Curtis Salgado, Tinsley Ellis and Eden Brent bring cheer to the MontBleu Theatre at Lake Tahoe on Saturday, Dec. 22 2018.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Kurt Johnson

Nothing makes a concertgoer happier than getting the blues for Christmas.

That’s the view of a jovial crowd on Saturday, Dec. 22, thrilled with the presence of four headliners on one stage – Tommy Castro & The Painkillers, Tinsley Ellis, Eden Brent and Curtis Salgado – for the Mont Blues Ball 2 at MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa.

More than three hours into the show, a stagehand had to signal Castro that it was a wrap, and the musicians took a final bow. But everybody wanted to keep going. So goes the Christmas blues. There is, however, already plenty of snow to guarantee a white Christmas.

Tahoe Onstage
Tommy Castro cracks up with Eden Brent.

The first Mont Blues Ball was held in the fall, and like the second it was a heavily improvised affair with well known, talented blues players, Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio, Marcia Ball and Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings. Music lovers can wish for MontBleu and Devildog Promotions to make a New Year’s resolution to keep the Mont Blues balls rolling.

“I don’t know how this came about, but I am glad I am here,” Salgado said.

Alligator Records artists Ellis and Castro have made a combined 38 albums, and last November, for the first time, they joined forces for a T‘N’T Tour. They alternated going on first or second. Ellis is from Atlanta and Castro is from the Bay Area, so on Saturday Castro and his band were the headliners. “This is Tommy’s territory,” Ellis said before the show.

Ellis has played North Shore several times in the past decade, but it was just his second appearance at South Shore. He opened the show alongside drummer Erik Kaszynski and bassist Kevan McCann. The seven-song, 45-minute set featured songs from Ellis’ earlier to latest records. The highlight was the quavering “Saving Grace,” one of the gems from his Alligator comeback albums, “Winning Hand.”

Why Ellis isn’t revered like fellow Southern rock guitarists such as Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes is a mystery, but he is exalted by his peers. The two aforementioned players brought Ellis to join them for a song at the very last Allman Brothers concert.

Next to the stage was Tommy Castro & The Painkillers. The always-smiling Castro has as much stage presence as any bluesman, save for maybe Buddy Guy. And he backs it up with upbeat musicianship on his guitar and soulful vocals. In recent years, he’s changed his sound by removing a horn section.

During the set, which included histrionics from charismatic bass player Randy McDonald, the music switched styles enough to call it singular, something every artist wants. If any blues purists disapproved, it was impossible to detect because everyone was smiling along with Castro. The reflective “My Old Neighborhood” from his latest album “Stompin’ Ground” was most inspirational.

Speaking of charismatic, Eden Brent is a showstopper. It’s no wonder that she is an International Blues Challenge champion, an achievement that requires musicianship, originality and especially a fantastic rapport with the audience. She has a captivating Mississippi drawl and plays boogie-woogie piano. Her vocal style is in the vein of Bessie Smith. Brent played most-appropriately selected tunes from her new album, “An Eden Brent Christmas.”

Salgado is one of the planet’s greatest soul singers. He has a penchant for collecting Blues Music Awards and defying doctors’ fatal prognosis. He’s survived cancer twice, had a liver transplant and in 2017 underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Salgado was John Belushi’s inspiration for his Joilet Jake character in “The Blues Brothers.” He blew the crowd away with a voice as strong as ever, especially with cover tunes by O.V. Wright and Little Milton.

Salgado, Brent and Ellis were all onstage for a final jam. Salgado played harmonica and Brent sang along. During a cover of Elvin Bishop’s “Rock Bottom,” Castro and Ellis traded solo guitar licks  before harmonizing and walking in step toward the front of the stage. It was the last show together for the two veteran bluesman, who clearly reveled in their collaboration.

After the show, Castro said eight of the songs played that night had never been rehearsed. And that he wanted to play another song — much like someone who doesn’t want to put away his Christmas toys and go to bed.

— Tim Parsons

  • MontBlues 2
    Tommy Castro & The Painkillers, Tinsley Ellis, Eden Brent and Curtis Salgado
    MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa
    Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018
  • Tinsley Ellis
    Sound of a Broken Man
    Other Side
    Saving Grace
    Cut You Loose
    Devil for a Dime
    A Quitter Never Wins
    Doubled Eye Whammy (Freddie King)
  • Tommy Castro & The Painkillers
    Instrumental intro
    Make it Back to Memphis
    Ride
    Too Many Bad Habits
    My Old Neighborhood
    Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
  • Eden Brent
    Boogie Woogie Santa Claus
    Merry Christmas Baby
    Blue Christmas
    Someone Else is Steppin’ In
  • Curtis Salgado
    Don’t Let My Baby Ride
    Little Milton cover
    O.V. Wright cover
    You’re My Girl
  • Everybody
    Rock Bottom (Elvin Bishop)
    Them Changes (Buddy Miles)
    Hit it ‘N Quit it (James Brown)

    Tahoe Onstage
    Tinsley Ellis in his second South Lake Tahoe appearance.
    Tahoe Onstage
    Curtis Salgado gives a pointer to Tommy Castro.
    Tahoe Onstage
    Eden Brent played Christmas tunes during her set.
    Tahoe Onstage
    From left: Kevan McCann, Tinsley Ellis and Erik Kaszynski.
    Tahoe Onstage
    Tommy Castro and longtime Painkiller bassist Randy McDonald.
    Tahoe Onstage
    Sweet and soulful Curtis Salgado

    Tahoe Onstage
    In the spotlight, Tim Parsons of Tahoe Onstage introduces Tinsley Ellis.

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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