It's been years since blues guitarist Tommy Castro has played in Alaska. The last time, he remembered, was a short stint at a blues bar in Anchorage around the time he formed his band in 1991.
Back then, The Tommy Castro Band was starting to emerge as one of the most popular bands in the San Francisco blues bar scene. Now, they're popping up on national television, headlining festivals across the country and still shaking their heads that they've managed to tour with B.B. King and play with John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy.
Yes, life is good for the Tommy Castro Band, who, as many of the blues magazines in the country have been prognosticating since their 1996 debut album, could be on the verge of some sort of breakthrough success. Perhaps that will come with their first studio record of original material since 2001. They're currently writing the songs and shopping for a label, and they hope to have something out in January.
"We're doing what we always do, working our asses off," Castro said. "We've been working our asses off since we started this whole thing. And we have no intentions of slowing down."
The Tommy Castro Band will kick off the 18th Annual Juneau Jazz and Classics festival with an 8 p.m. show on Friday, May 21, at Centennial Hall. No one under 21 will be admitted without a legal guardian. Tickets are $20 for adults, $16 for students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books and online at www.jazzandclassics.org.
The band will also play two blues cruises on Saturday, May 22 - 7 p.m. (tickets, $60) and 10 p.m. ($50). Boats will leave from downtown's Seadrome Dock.
The group's current incarnation includes: Castro (guitar), Randy McDonald (bass), Chris Sandoval (drums) and Keith Crossan (saxophone).
"We've changed drummers a couple times, but I've had these same guys all along," Castro said. "These guys are very involved in all of the music. It's really a band thing. It's not a big guitar show, and it's not an endless night of guitar solos."
"This is our first time in Alaska in a long, long time, so we're really looking forward to this festival."
The Castro Band's last record was 2003's "Gratitude," their seventh overall. It was a thank you album of sorts, with covers of both Kings (B.B. and Albert), Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Wilson Pickett, Buddy Guy and more. Curtis Salgado sat in one track, and Sista Monica Parker helped on another. Castro released it on Heart & Soul, a label he created specially for the project.
"People loved that record, and I really do feel like I owe everything, this whole life basically, to those people who I learned from," Castro said. "It was a very natural thing for me to do: Take songs and make the sounds that my band had come to be known for. We really didn't do much more than get together in the studio like we were kids. You get some friends and you get some records, and you say let's do this. The only difference was we had tape running."
"Over the years, I've gotten the chance to meet most of these guys," he said. "The record was basically a thank you, and it became very popular with our fan base and the blues audience in general."
Castro grew up in San Jose, Calif., and started playing guitar when he was 10. He hung out at home, jamming with friends and listening to his record collection - a lot of Eric Clapton and Elvin Bishop. Some of the biggest blues and R&B bands in the country would stop by the Santa Clara County Fairground. By the time he was 16, he was sneaking into the city to catch bands at the Fillmore and Winterland.
"There was a lot that was going on at the time when I was coming up," Castro said. "A lot of blues bands and R&B bands were playing in the area. Elvin Bishop would play around. Taj Mahal would be playing around. Freddie King, Paul Butterfield Blues Band. All that kind of stuff was going on at the time."
Once out of his teens, though, Castro drifted out of music for a few years. It was a few years before he rediscovered it.
"I was a late bloomer in that I realized late that music was what I should have been doing with my life," Castro said. "I was almost 30 when I figured that out."
"I had been playing music part-time with different people and different kinds of bands, just doing oldies and stuff like that, and a little blues club opened in town. I would go for a jam session and end up playing the blues. I couldn't believe they would pack the place for the kind of music that I liked. I just decided to make a go of it and move to San Francisco."
Castro fell in with The Dynatones, a nationally touring act signed to Warner Brothers. He played with the band for two years.
"It was one of the best experiences I ever had; I really learned a lot," Castro said. "And that's where I met Randy (McDonald). He was the bass player at the time, and when I started my own band, he was the first guy I called."
The Tommy Castro Band was formed in 1991 with Castro (guitar), McDonald (bass), San Francisco scenester Keith Crossan (saxophone) and Chad Harris (drums).
"We didn't really start a band," Castro said. "I called different people, and whoever could make it we'd get together and we'd play what we could play. Eventually it just fell into a lineup. The next thing we had a record deal, and then we had a booking agent and then we were going on tours."
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.