Drawn to the Rhythm & Blues
Three Stages at Folsom Lake College, now eight months old, quickly became a target performing arts destination for dance, music and theater productions. The intimate 800-seat theater with state-of-the-art lighting, huge stage area and stellar acoustics has proven to be an ideal venue for high-brow productions of every ilk.
On Oct. 21 Three Stages lowers its brow for roadhouse rocker Tommy Castro, who rolls into Folsom with his rowdy friends in the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue to play the blues, which in Castro’s case mean gospel-tinged R&B, blue-eyed soul and a lot of good old rock and roll.
Castro’s career has been defined by thousands of performances over the last quarter century in far less assuming venues. He’ll appear at Three Stages courtesy of local promoter Mary Carrera, a driving force in the formative years of El Dorado Arts Council’s annual blues blast Coloma Blues Live.
The Three Stages show includes Castro’s band, plus headliners Curtis Salgado, Bernard Allison and Deanna Bogart playing separately and also together in a blues revue.
The revue is a throwback to the bus tours employed by blues, soul and early rock promoters in the late 1950s and early 1960s to expose audiences to the likes of Muddy Waters, Wilson Picket and Buddy Holly. Up to five headliners would barnstorm the country for months at a time, sharing a backup band and just about everything else. They’d typically play larger venues on weekends, with high school gymnasiums, VFW halls or anything their promoter could book squeezed in midweek.
Sound quality and sight lines were often atrocious, but for 1950s teenagers it was an affordable way to catch their current idol, and maybe discover their next one.
Rock and roll drove industry changes, and thrived. Arena rock and summer festivals soon spelled the end of the revue road shows. Blues and soul music suffered. Radio stations once dedicated to “race” genres, including jazz, jumped formats. The club scene dried up. Journeymen performers took day jobs.
The British Invasion changed all that. A European-fueled revival of American roots music bolstered struggling folk, bluegrass, blues and jazz players, many of whom incorporated elements of rock just to punch up performances.
For many talented artists the hybrid genres became greater than the sum of their parts. Castro’s fusion of rock, blues and soul is one such example.
The idea for the revue was conceived on the high seas. In 2003 Castro was booked on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, the first of many appearances on the week-long floating blues festival. In a recent phone interview from his home in Tiburon, Castro recalled the sheer joy of playing on the water.
“You’re out there in the ocean under the stars on the back deck of a cruise ship,” he said. “It’s mind-bogglingly cool being in the middle of it.”
The cruise was founded by Roger Naber, who boasts that musicians have come to love his cruises as much as, if not more than, the blues fans who quickly buy up every available berth, cruise after cruise.
Any touring musician will attest to the rigors of the road, much of it endured in cramped minivans and chain motels, interspersed with endless equipment setups and breakdowns.
All that gets set aside for a week. The artists play sporadic afternoon and evening sets with ample time to relax.
“It’s the gig everyone looks forward to all year,” said Castro. “I catch up with my friends, and even get a little quiet time to myself out there.”
To top it off, Naber creates open-ended opportunities for the artists to play with their peers each night. One performer, often Castro, is deemed “jam leader,” responsible for shuffling players on and off stage throughout the evening. The results can last until sunrise.
“We put the best players in the business together, get everyone loosened up and we just start partying,” said Castro. “There’s something about good musicians playing together unrehearsed that audiences love.”
“The jams are beyond anything you’ll see in nightclubs or festivals,” added Naber. “There’s freedom out here that they don’t get on the road.”
Over the years, the jam sessions became the highlight of the cruise for many of the fans and the performers. “That’s what gave me the idea,” said Castro, “I thought, man, we’ve got to do something like this on land.”
The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue was born.
Castro settled on a format that features each of four artists separately, then closes with a big jam session, “like we do on the ship,” he said.
“I might be the most recognizable name in lineup, but I wanted to open the show,” he said. “Then we bring everyone up one at a time; they can do about 30 minutes each with my band.”
Putting the first tour together in 2007 proved a daunting task. “A lot of people said I couldn’t pull it off,” said Castro. “They said the names weren’t big enough to fill the houses I wanted to book, but I knew it was a good idea and just kept goin’.”
Castro relied on his reputation as a stellar performer, a responsible businessman and a leader among his fellow artists to get the first tour staffed and booked.
“People had to trust me,” he said. “It was a leap of faith for these musicians to leave their band behind and put themselves in my hands for a couple of weeks.”
Eventually, fellow headliners and blues cruisers Deanna Bogart, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Magic Dick (of the J. Geils Band) agreed to take the chance.
Castro recalled his worst fear during that first tour, worrying that the collaborative energy between the artists, so essential for the show’s grand finale, might fall short of what they’d all experienced on the ship. But the musical chemistry they achieved created a problem of a different sort.
“People loved it. We loved it … and no one wanted to stop,” cackled Castro in his infectious gravel-throated laugh.
The early revue shows ran over four hours. Since then they’ve learned to shorten the sets and get everyone one and off stage more efficiently.
Nowadays, everyone gets home before the babysitter starts charging overtime.
Curtis Salgado hails from the northwest and was named “Best Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year” in 2010. He’s played with Robert Cray, fronted Roomful of Blues and toured as vocalist for Santana. He was also John Belushi’s inspiration for “Jake Blues” in “The Blues Brothers.”
Salgado’s stellar blue-eyed soul vocals evoke the ageless Welsh crooner Tom Jones at times, but with a blues-tinged musicality.
Bernard Allison returns to the revue fresh off a month of performances in France, toting the six string shooter his late father Luther Allison used to attack the blues. He inherited his father’s soulful voice and a willingness to experiment.
Deanna Bogart has become a regular part of the revue. She brings the energy of 1930s boogie piano with smoky vocals and an occasional saxophone solo. “Deanna is not afraid to try anything,” said Castro. “She never takes the easy way out.”
Bogart is probably the least known name in the current revue lineup, said Castro, mainly because she hails from Maryland and does most of her touring on the East Coast. “But she invariably gets the strongest crowd reaction.”
Bogart is part of a growing boogie piano tradition that includes two-fisted New Orleans piano pounder Marsha Ball and more locally, Caroline Dahl, who plays in Tom Rigney’s popular Zydeco outfit Flambeau, and Honey Piazza, who accompanies her husband Rod and the Mighty Flyers.
Tom Castro, (“Tommy” would come much later) was born in San Jose in 1955. He picked up a guitar at age 10 and studied at the school of Clapton, Bloomfield and Bishop, later tacking on a graduate degree in Muddy Waters, BB King and Albert King. He was also drawn to the great soul singers of the 1960s — Wilson Picket, Ray Charles and James Brown.
By his late 20s he was playing in blues and soul bands in the Bay Area, most notably The Dynatones. He formed his own band in 1991 and hit the road.
Guitar legend Carlos Santana said of Castro, “The blues is in good hands. This is the person who has the voice, the sound and the right intentions.”
Just two days after the Three Stages show, the entire revue departs on the 17th Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. Castro has become the honorary cruise captain.
He embarks on a cross-country tour with his band in November, and will be ringleading another cruise in January. Like the October cruise, it’s completely sold out.
With the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue, Castro has demonstrated that he’s got leadership chops to match his guitar licks, and is well positioned to become one of the elder statesmen of the blues in years to come.
Date & Details
What: Tommy Castro’s Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue
Where: Three Stages at Folsom Lake College, 10 College Parkway
When: 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21
Cost: $20 to $40 per person
Informaiton: Visit carrera-productions.com