As one of the foremost blues-based guitarists of his generation to emerge out of the San Francisco Bay Area, Tommy Castro was used to an ensemble sound fortified by horns, soul and sass. It started with his tenure in the underappreciated West Coast rock and R&B troupe the Dynatones and became a signature of nearly every band he has led since. Until now.
Hungry for music that was more spacious, Castro searched out a more compact group with a rocking blues foundation capable of pushing his guitar work to the forefront. Thus the Painkillers were born along with a lean but roaring new album, “The Devil You Know.”
Castro and his band return to the State Theatre on March 7, where he has consistently drawn crowds over the years.
And, no, the band name shouldn’t be interpreted as an antidote for the large, orchestrated bands that previously defined Castro’s music. The quartet is the means for a restless guitar slinger to set out on a new musical adventure.
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“For one thing, I knew I had to do something different,” said Castro, 58.
“I had this big band, the kind of band I always wanted, with horns and keyboards and everything. It was a sound that just kept growing as the years went by until the last three or four albums, which went really heavy in the horn arrangement department and a certain kind of R&B groove. I loved it and I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I did it. And then I was ready to do something else.”
Well before the band change, new sounds were being fed to Castro by some of his closest personal associates: his children.
“I was driving my kids to school in the morning, and my kids have got great taste in music. They played stuff by Jack White and the Black Keys. Then somebody hipped me to Gary Clark Jr. I started listening to Derek Trucks’ and Susan Tedeschi’s band. There was a bunch of new blues music on the scene, a little bit more modern-sounding stuff that I was really enjoying. That was one thing that happened to me.
“The other thing happened when was I was watching Tab Benoit perform. I’m a big Tab Benoit fan. He was playing just with a bass player and a drummer, and I thought, ‘I want to do something like that. I want to play with a sound that has a little bit more breathing room.’ I wanted a sound that was driven by the guitar, that’s more reliant on rhythms and grooves to connect with people. So that started the exploration and the motivation to go in this direction.”
The smaller, looser feel of the Painkillers (bassist Randy McDonald, keyboardist James Page and drummer David Tucker) might represent a new performance enterprise for Castro, but the combo sound they create really isn’t. Castro soaked it in throughout his youth in some of San Francisco’s most cherished music halls.
“I grew up listening to a generation of blues music that came out of the ’60s. That’s where I started cutting my teeth in learning how to play. I was listening to guys like Eric Clapton and some of the heavier bands like Led Zeppelin and, of course, the Rolling Stones. I listened to a lot of the Chicago blues bands like Paul Butterfield – bands with a tougher, grittier sound.
“Going back, in a way, to that is a very joyful thing. It makes me feel like a kid again. I get out and do shows with the Painkillers, and we’re just rocking out. It feels great.”