Play (Lists)

Crusin’ for Some Bluesin’: California’s Tommy Castro Set to Return to Annapolis—and the High Seas—with You!

Tommy Castro believes that what is considered “blues” music has shifted dramatically over the decades. Thus, what you might hear played on B.B. King’s Bluesville on SiriusXM falls under a rather broad catchall of various influences that all inform that magic elixir of what we call the blues. 

“Forty years ago, if somebody like Solomon Burke or Wilson Pickett put out a record, it would have been on the R&B charts, but in recent years those guys put out albums and they want it on the blues channels,” Castro said. “So blues has a huge umbrella now, and it’s everything from rock blues to traditional blues—anything from different cities around the country or regions of the country.”

Indeed, there’s Texas blues, Chicago blues, St. Louis blues and of course Memphis blues. But Castro, a native of San Jose, adheres to the West Coast blues sound, which he says is “hard to define” but nonetheless part of the western seaboard’s sonic DNA. 

Tommy Castro performing live - Dragan Tasic
Tommy Castro performing live - Dragan Tasic

“You don’t think of the West Coast as being a blues place like Chicago or Texas or New Orleans, but we cover stuff from all of those different channels in our original music,” the bluesman said. “Our music is made up of a combination of classic, soul and R&B, traditional blues, and sometimes we’ll dip into what they call rock blues,” Castro said of his group’s sonic signature. 

“That’s the thing about our show: We don’t do just one style of music all night.”

Tommy Castro & the Painkillers will bring their swinging’ West Coast sound to the Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis April 2. It’ll be a rocking and rolling return for the ensemble, who have played at the venue in Maryland’s capital city many times before. Castro calls the Rams Head a “super professional venue,” and one he always enjoys returning to.

“Well, for one thing they feed us well,” Castro offered with a giggle. “I’m not kidding, the food is really great. We know the place, we know the sound system, we know the stage. We know the people. 

“We’ve been doing this venue and [playing for] this audience for a long time now, so it’s very familiar and comfortable—and kind of like playing to a group of friends. We really enjoy playing the Rams Head.”

Among Castro’s many influences are Buddy Guy, Ray Charles, Taj Mahal, Otis Redding and Elvin Bishop. Oh, and of course some guy called B.B. King. Castro was named B.B. King Entertainer of the Year at the Blues Music Awards 2022—his third such win—and he’s been nominated for the same award this year. His band’s latest album, “Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Town,” was also recognized by the BMAs with its prestigious “Album of the Year” award. 

“I was not expecting that because that was my third BB King Entertainer of the Year,” said Castro. “I figure anybody who’s got two of those was enough. So what a huge surprise.” 

And speaking of his several BB King awards, Castro gleefully recalls not only meeting but enjoying the honor of playing beside his hero.

“I got the opportunity to sit down next to BB King and play with him on stage, because we wound up on a tour opening for him back in ’99 and 2000,” Castro recalls of slinging axes next to the one and only King. “And one night Carlos Santana sat in with both of us!”

Taj Mahal’s playing also hooked Castro on the blues sound, so he said that as a teen it was his goal to play the country blues just like Mahal did. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the two artists take to the high seas together as part of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.

“He was this bigger-than-life influence, [and] once in a while he’ll give me a call out of the blue.  He calls me!” Castro enthused of Mahal, adding that during some virtual jam sessions at the height of the pandemic, the elder statesman ever so gently corrected the younger man’s technique. 

Tommy Castro - Press Photo - Kathleen Harrison
Tommy Castro - Press Photo - Kathleen Harrison

Castro was also privileged to be the final musician to record alongside the legendary John Lee Hooker. Castro invited Hooker to lay down some vocals for his 2001 album, “Guilty of Love,” an invitation the legendary bluesman accepted.

“He did a live show in between the time that we sat down [to record] a vocal on my album. A few days later, he did a show in Northern California, and everybody was talking about how he was really on fire that night,” Castro recalled. “And then he passed away in his sleep, I guess it was a week after that.

“Those kinds of things I never dreamed of have come to pass,” Castro said of sharing such experiences with his musical idols. “If I died tomorrow, I would have no regrets.”

Castro’s ensemble, the Painkillers, entails bassist Randy McDonald, drummer Bowen Brown and keyboardist Michael Emerson. The foursome have been recording and touring together for a decade, and continue to be recognized by their colleagues, as evidenced by another accolade, Blues Blast magazine’s Blues Band Of The Year Award. 

Their last time in our area, they toured with Deanna Bogart, who lived in Maryland for decades. Castro and Bogart now live together in Palm Springs, and although his better half won’t be coming to the Rams Head this time around, Castro nonetheless says the audience is in for a surprise or two.

Tommy Castro & The Painkillers - Kathleen Harrison
Tommy Castro & The Painkillers - Kathleen Harrison

“To keep it fresh and not repeat the same show…I will be doing a little acoustic set, which I’ve never done before,” he said of the evening in Annapolis. “I do about four or five songs from the new release, and the rest of the night is made up of…people’s favorites.”

Castro remains thankful that, for all intents and purposes, life as a touring musician has returned to a post-covid sense of normalcy. If anything, he believes audiences are even more appreciative of live music than before those difficult early lockdowns. And he and the Painkillers are more than happy to oblige.

“Taj Mahal just got a Grammy at 80 years old. Maybe you play a little less, but you never retire,” Castro said. “I still love to play and as long as I’m able to do it and people are willing to come and buy a ticket to my show, I have a feeling I’ll be going on.”

Oh, and remember how he’ll be pushing off from shore alongside Mahal for that Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise? Castro would like you to know that anyone who purchases a ticket to his Rams Head gig can enter into a drawing for a free bunk on that upcoming seafaring adventure. 

“Me and the band purchased a cabin, and we’re going to give away one of these cabins for two, with a window,” he said. “Just buying a ticket to my show puts you in the drawing. You can buy as many tickets as you want—they all count.”

Future seafaring adventures aside, Castro projects graciousness for both the musical heroes with whom he’s been able to jam as well as the successful road his own path has trod over a lengthy career.

“I really set out to make a living doing what I love, and that was a challenge to get it up and running,” he said. “But then it happened!”

Tommy Castro & the Painkillers will play at the Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis April 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at Check out more of the band on Facebook and YouTube. More about the The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise is available at

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

Subscribe to Alchemical Records today to support our efforts online and in print. 

Join the Alchemical Records Street Team to promote these and other artists, live music, and music community organizations & events while receiving cool perks from artists throughout the region.

More to explore

Betty Who, headliner of Kinetic Presents Pride Month event

Zach Renovátes, Kinetic Presents: In the Name of Love For All

As a producer bringing some major events to Capital Pride this year, Zach Renovátes admits that he was keen to get Betty Who on the lineup. After having seen several of her live performances already, Renovátes knew the Australian would make a fine marquee addition to the “Kinetic Presents Candyland” event at Echostage June 10.

Fortunately, she was both available and interested.

“Something that I personally saw was that [Betty Who] is one of the most pro-LGBT singer-songwriters I’ve ever ever seen perform live,” Renovátes said, adding that the D.C. audiences at her concerts come largely from within the gay community. “So she absolutely knows that we as queer people make up a huge percentage of her fan base.”
The June 10 event is the main draw of a weekend of collaborations between Kinetic Presents and the Capital Pride Alliance in celebration of D.C. Pride 2023. Other big names who will play at various venues around the District include DJs Abel and Cindel, Dan Slater, as well as Jerac and Paulo Fragoso. It’ll be a pride-filled musical weekend indeed, with Echostage, Sax, Bunker and Bliss Nightclub hosting the pulsing sounds of revelry. And there’s also the big parade on June 10.

Read More »