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Tommy Castro Nostalgic About His Soulful Childhood Neighborhood

Victoria Smith
Tommy Castro, 2nd from right, and The Painkillers

Tommy Castro has incorporated soul and rock into his blues from nearly the time he began playing music. On his new album “Stompin’ Ground,” he overtly tips his hat to the soul and “hippie-rock” he assimilated while musically coming of age in San Jose, California, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“You’d walk down the street in the neighborhood and there would be guys in low-rider cars blasting soul music. They’d be blasting James Brown, Wilson Pickett or Junior Walker & the All-Stars. I remember hearing Walker’s ‘Shotgun,’ which was one of my favorites,” recalled Castro.

The soulful funk of War, Santana, and Tower of Power were also seeping into his consciousness.  

“There was a place all the hippie kids and low-rider dudes … we’d all start going to the same parties and hanging out at music events. It was a really great time because the music started to be so inclusive. All of these different sounds were happening. That’s the kind of stuff the inspired me to do what I do,” said Castro.

The late 60s/early 70s produced an explosion of American bands and artists fusing the sounds Castro speaks of. And the Bay Area was one of the country’s flashpoints. At venues across San Francisco, one could see, as an example, bluesman Muddy Waters, jazz legend Charles Mingus, and rock star Janis Joplin on the same bill. Castro looks back on that time as one of the great times in music history, a time when FM radio was new and experimenting with different sounds and formats.

“You would hear the long version of ‘Blues Power’ by Albert King,” remembered Castro. “That’s just something you’re not going to hear today. There weren’t as many sponsors and commercials, so whatever the DJs found that they liked, they would put it on the radio.

“The first time I heard Taj Mahal was ‘Bacon Fat,'” Castro gave as example. It’s from Mahal’s 1969 album ‘Giant Step.’ "It’s another really long track they would never dream of playing nowadays on mainstream rock stations. I was definitely lucky to grow up in that time period.”

“My Old Neighborhood” from “Stompin’ Ground” opens a lens into how Castro saw his late 1960s working class San Jose neighborhood. It was a time without the internet and smartphones, when kids actually went out and often literally played in the streets.

“The air was cold/rainclouds are forming/I see men with lunch pails and coffee/start their steel trucks and cars” - "My Old Neighborhood" from CD "Stompin' Ground"

“And it was a time everybody had a record player in the bedroom,” said Castro. “You’d go to a friend’s house and listen to the latest Savoy Brown song. I remember there was an album that had Jimi Hendrix on one side and Otis Redding on the other. And when somebody would get a new record, that was the excitement and everybody wanted to hear it. Cause we didn’t have much money in our pockets.”

Castro’s cover of Buddy Miles’ 1970 funky rock classic “Them Changes” is a particularly tasty choice for “Stompin’ Ground.” As was the decision to bring in Los Lobos member David Hidalgo to play and sing on the song.

“It was a song from ‘those days’ that was very popular. It was a song that everybody played. And then finally people stopped playing it. I thought it would be a good time to bring it back,” laughed Castro. “It was so much fun man, god he (Hidalgo) is such a great voice and what a great player. We did something a little different with the groove on it. I think my band just locked into some super cool grooves on the instrumental portions of the tune.”

Tommy Castro & the Painkiller will "lock-in" when they return to the Castle Theater on Oct. 5. Bloomington’s Old Smoke opens the show. Doors open at 7 p.m., music starts at 8 p.m.

Listen to the entire interview between Tommy Castro and GLT's Jon Norton, including samples from his new Alligator Records album "Stompin' Ground."

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.