After decades of bringing his stinging, horn-driven blues across the country, Tommy Castro knew it was time for a change.
“If I intend to do this for another 20 years, I’ve got to keep it fresh,” Castro said. “I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut. I did start to feel I was in danger of that and getting stale a little. So I thought ‘Things are going to change.’
“I had a vision, an idea. I want to stay fresh and current. I made these tough decisions. I went with my instincts and my intuition. Not everybody was thrilled with the idea. But what I had in my mind is a record like this and a sound like this.”
The tough decisions began in 2012 when Castro stripped down his band, eliminating the horn section to create a taut, tight four-piece outfit anchored by Tommy Castro Band original Randy McDonald on bass.
Then came time to write the songs that turned into “The Devil You Know,” Castro’s just-released Alligator Records album. Challenging himself to compose with new rhythms and sounds, Castro used drum rhythms to drive the lyrics and set the tone for the recordings.
Many of those songs wound up with a raw, driving rock edge. Even slow, rock-rooted grinders like “She Wanted To Give It to Me” are something of a departure for Castro.
“I remember listening to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones -- blues with rock 'n’ roll edge -- Jimi Hendrix, that kind of stuff,” Castro said. “I was always leaning a little more to traditional blues. But when I was a teenager I listened to that a lot and I played it on guitar with my record player and with garage bands, just a bunch of kids in a garage making noise.
“Some of this stuff reminds me of that, that kind of feeling. The track with Bonamassa on it is like that. I wish that was me playing on it, but it’s him.”
Bonamassa is guitarist Joe Bonamassa, who joins Castro and the Painkillers on “I’m Tired.” He’s just one of the guests on “The Devil You Know,” part of a lineup that include Marcia Ball, The Holmes Brothers, Tab Benoit, Tasha Taylor, Samantha Fish, Mark Karan and Magic Dick.
Ball, for example, stopped by the studio when she was playing a nearby show and added her piano and vocals to the Louisiana boogie of “Mojo Hannah,” while harmonica man Magic Dick and The Holmes Brothers join in to give the propulsive “Two Steps Forward” a gospel feel.
“It took a lot of work organizing all that and putting it together,” Castro said. “Tab Benoit is one of my favorite acts on the scene. Marcia Ball has been a friend of mine for many years. I just love what she does. All the people I wanted came through for me and made this record something special, you know.”
Now Castro and the Painkillers are out, bringing the new sounds of “The Devil You Know” to clubs from coast to coast, including a Sunday stop at the Zoo Bar, where Castro has been a regular for decades.
“We’re leaving no place untarnished,” Castro said of the extensive touring schedule. “I do love it. We have a funky old bus we get around in. It gives us a little sense of home away from home. It’s still a lot of fun, sure. Especially when you’re starting the tour on the Blues Cruise. You can’t complain about that. But then we’ll be back in snow. “
Castro, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, expected he’d be in snow when he returned to Lincoln. But he’ll get plenty of it after the Zoo Bar show when he and the band head to Canada.
The Great White North in February isn’t ideal. But Castro’s happy to go, to keep moving, playing his music and making a living, like one of the blues masters he emulates.
“I have every intention of going out like John Lee Hooker,” Castro said. “I’m not stopping anytime soon. I know John Lee was out playing right up until the end, and he was very contemporary. I knew him. He was always moving forward. He didn’t resist something new coming along. He kept playing into his 80s. He played a night or two before he died. I recorded him on my album ‘Guilty of Love’ exactly a week before he died.”
At 58, Castro’s got a ways to go before he catches Hooker. With his new direction and “The Devil You Know,” he’s found the path to get there.
“I’m very happy with the way it turned out and how the band has turned out,” Castro said. “It took a long time. But this is the direction I wanted to go.”