By Kevin Porter
Six-time Blues Music Award winner and BB King Entertainer of the Year, Tommy Castro, and Georgia blues-rock legend, Tinsley Ellis, who ranks as one of today’s most electrifying guitarists and vocalists, share a double bill on their upcoming “T’N’T Tour.” They are launching their joint tour along the East Coast and other parts of the U.S on November 9, 2018.
Castro and Ellis are both well worth seeing individually but having them both on a double bill should make for a phenomenal concert. We thought it would be fun to jointly interview Castro and Ellis, and they were kind enough to make time in their busy schedules. Good friends on and off the stage, they quickly eased into this conversation, as if they were picking up from a previous conversation from some weeks or months back. They also share a self-deprecating sense of humor, and the laughs were plentiful during the interview.
Castro’s latest album, Stompin’ Ground is one of our favorite albums of 2017 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tinsley Ellis’ Winning Hand is one of our favorite albums of 2018. Besides being accomplished guitarists and singers, they also are justifiably proud of their songwriting, something they emphasized when Rock and Blues Muse interviewed each of them individually.
KP: Thanks for taking part in this little experiment. Tinsley was nice enough to tell me about this tour you guys are doing and that’s what gave me the idea of interviewing you both at the same time.
TE: Yeah, I remember that when we did the interview a couple of months ago.
KP: How long have you guys known each other and how did you first meet?
TE: Boy, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it, Tommy?
TC: That’s actually a tough question because I’ve known about Tinsley—what it’s been, about 30 years? 25-30 years?
TE: I think we met when you were in the Dynatones and I was in the Heartfixers. I think we met when we were both sponsored by…
TC: Miller Genuine Draft.
TE: I wasn’t going to say that. I was going to say a big beer company.
TC: They had a thing called the Miller Genuine Draft Band Network. To be honest, I don’t know if it was with the Dynatones or my first configuration of the Tommy Castro Band. It was a cool thing. They’d help promote the shows and that was the best thing about that deal. They’d promote the shows in the clubs in those days, and people would just come out and get hammered.
TE: In those days they’d bring free beer — two cases of beer for the band. That wasn’t enough (laughs.)
TC: You’d lie and say that was good beer. Had to lie about it.
TE: Free beer is good beer any day. They gave us a guitar that had a pointy headstock, so I never played it.
KP: What’s wrong with a pointy headstock?
TE: A pointy headstock, that’s something like a metal band would play. It had the beer company name on it and I was like, ‘thanks—I guess.’ Can I trade this for more beer?
TC: The important thing is that’s probably how we met up, but after that, we’d play together at various festivals and gigs.
TE: It’s been ten years since we started doing those shows together in DC, Annapolis and Falls Church.
TC: That was ten years ago?
TE: That was ten years ago.
TC: It doesn’t seem like that.
TE: We’ve been talking about this tour even before that. We talked about doing this and the music, the stuff we played. We grew up, you know, 3,000 miles apart and we liked the same kind of stuff and I always thought when we jammed, it was memorable. There’s some videos of it online. The time is now, I guess.
KP: You said you’ve been talking about this for a long time. What made you guys say okay, ‘we’re pulling the trigger.’
TC: Well, if I might, there’s probably something from Tinsley’s end as well, but I remember thinking to myself, you know, in between releases of my own it would be cool to get together with other guitar players and team up, so we’d have something new to talk about. It’d create some kind of buzz. I starting thinking about cats I like personally because if you are ever going to run a couple of dates together, the kind of music we play is important. But to me, the most important thing is that I still love to play. This is still a lot of fun for me, so I want to play with people that have fun too. There’s a lot of great players that I just don’t think I’d have a good time hanging out with. I’m not talking about anyone in particular, and there’s hardly anyone that I dislike. But overall, hanging out musically, sitting back stage chatting, you want to hang out with people you admire and people who you can have fun with.
TE: That’s true. Life’s too short to get on a tour that and have it go south and eek some fun out of it, waiting for it to end. I’m sure that happens with hard rock bands fussing over who is going to have the biggest pyrotechnics or something like that. We’ve done this before and this is kind of a larger extension of what we’ve done before. We’ve played with a lot of the same people over the years – Mike Zito is a good friend of both bands. We’ve both toured with him. Tommy, you got one coming up, and you know blues really is one big happy family, especially the acts that are on the same label. We have the extra benefit of both being on Alligator Records at the same time, too.
TC: I don’t think I’ve ever—I can’t remember, but I might have done stuff with Coco (Montoya) when he was on the label, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a tour like this with another Alligator artist that I can remember. My first thought was that Tinsley would be a good choice just because I like Tinsley’s music and I like Tinsley as a person, and I thought ‘well ****, that’s a no brainer’ – this isn’t live, is it?
TC: Because we’re on the same label, this will be easier for us to do because the publicity is coordinated by our record label (Alligator Records). By the way, we should mention that these guys are the best in the business in what they do.
TE: Boy, that’s true. I found out the hard way by leaving and coming back. But really there’s nothing like them. Nothing like them.
TC: The other cool thing about this is that Tinsley and I are of a certain age, and we’re digging every moment that we get to do this.
TC: There’s no competition. You know what I mean? When we were younger we were probably a little cockier trying to prove something, trying to butt heads and I am just not the least bit interested in that anymore. It’s going to be just collaboration. When you get on stage, it’s the jam, you want the musical experience to be good for everyone in the band and the audience.
TE: We’ll probably attract some guitar players as we go. We may have a third or fourth guitarist on stage as we go across the country. It’s happened before. It’s also cool because some nights I’m going on first and some nights he’s going on first. We divide it up without any real method. Any artist at Alligator Records is capable of closing a blues show, wouldn’t you say so, Tommy?
TC: Oh, of course.
TE: We’re all headliners. Open schmopen. But there was a time, when I was young, I’d say I’ve got to close the show. Then we found out that at festivals, sometimes the person that goes on last, there are not many people because they burned out and went home. Then, you want to be second to last.
TC: My favorite spot. We’d always shoot for that when I wised up. We’d say ‘you know, we don’t want that last spot.’ We negotiate not to close the show. (Laughs)
KP: I think you guys kind of hinted at this earlier that getting older and having a collaboration like this has been easier because you’re not trying to outdo each other, so to speak.
TE: We haven’t given up yet.
TC: There will be some sort of natural instinct to not want to suck when you’re playing with a really great guitar player. You want to pull out your best stuff. Our intentions are what matters, though. Our intention is to give people a good show, and to learn. I went out with Zito a couple of tours ago and it was fun and I stole some licks from him. (laughs). I did a few shows with Ronny Baker Brooks, Magic Dick and Deanna Bogart, and those were fun. We’d be traveling, and once in a while, I’d get Ronny to show me a couple of things. I’d say ‘there’s that lick you do, I want you to show me it.’ There are things I picked up from him and hardly a night goes by that I don’t use them. I suspect that I’ll probably learn something by playing with another good guitarist. It adds to the experience.
TE: Yes, it does.
KP: What do you admire in each other’s music or guitar playing or both?
TC: I’d say we both are tasty players. We’re not going for pyrotechnics. We’re not going for flash. We’re both fairly melodic when it comes to music. The main thing is, we both have a great deal of respect for the song. We really strive to write good songs, especially the stories and lyrics. A lot of guys have good musical chops, and the songs are just a good backdrop to play guitar to. In listening to Tinsley’s stuff, I really appreciate his songwriting and that’s always been my focus for as long as I can remember.
TE: Yes, I agree. I’m glad you mentioned songwriting. I hope we can get together some tunes that we can write on this tour.
TC: Oh, yeah. We should at least start on something.
TE: I love the Bay Area sound and I was listening to one of your older songs. I think it was from Right as Rain and it had a couple of things in there that sounded almost like Tower of Power. You know, I grew up in South Florida and we loved them there. I think I saw them on their very first tour right after What is Hip came out. You (Tommy) and I have talked about the music in my part of the country – the Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, and there really is not that much difference between that and the Bay Area sound. A lot of it can be traced back to the founding father of funk – James Brown.
TC: When I was a teenager and learning how to play this stuff, bands like the Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, a lot of what they call Southern Rock bands, but all those guys were playing blues. Tinsley mentioned James Brown – definitely one of my top five artists in the world. Listening to James, listening to Ray Charles, so much music that comes from that part of the country (the South), and it inspired us guys out West. I think that is one of the reasons we both have a little bit of soul influence in a lot of our stuff.
TC: It’s a great place to be – between blues and soul. It takes the blues out of that 1, 4, 5 standard set of chords. You can play a rhythm and blues tune and throw some blues licks over that while you are soloing, and I think it really fits. It’s kind of walking the line between blues, soul and rock and roll. We have a lot in common musically, I think.
TE: We do have a lot in common and I certainly lean maybe a little bit more toward the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Psychedelia with the wah wah pedal. Although I’ve heard you make forays into that area, and I’ve played with your organ player and he’s definitely into the Grateful Dead sound for sure.
TC: I live in Grateful Dead territory. There’s a place in the town I live in called Terrapin Crossroads. It’s owned by Phil Lesh and there’s another club ten miles down the road, maybe less, the old Sweetwater, which you’ve probably played in.
TE: Oh yeah, in Mill Valley.
TC: It went out of business—they got run out of town, basically. Years later, Bob Weir from the Dead and a couple of other cats reopened it and put a state-of-the-art sound system in it, and it’s really a nice club. This is definitely a place where you were inspired by that music and I love those guys. I was kind of a late bloomer in that area because I spent a lot of time, like I said, with soul music and those greasy old blues like the Chicago guys and Texas players and stuff like that. I started to pay a little more attention to bands like the Grateful Dead and just trying to get some kind of a jam going from time to time through the night so that the set is not so predictable. Gotta keep it fresh (laughs).
TE: All the people we’re talking about, whether it’s John Lee Hooker or the Allman Brothers, they’re playing from the heart and not the head. There are even some blues artists out that sound like they’re playing scales. I don’t know any scales (all laugh). I quit taking guitar lessons when they talked about scales and stuff. I was like: I’ve got it from here. And that’s how Tommy and I play. We play from the heart and not so much from the head, where you learn stuff and you play fast. I like slow stuff like Albert King.
TC: It’s mostly more melodic stuff. Try to hear something in your head and go for it. I’m like Tinsley, I don’t know a lot of scales, I know basic scales, but I don’t think about it when I’m playing. I just kind of know if I’m in a certain key and the notes sound good (laughs). Other than that, I’m just going for it.
TE: From the heart.
TC: This should be a hell of tour. I have a feeling it’s gonna catch fire. I have a feeling that people are gonna wanna see us together.
KP: What happens for you guys when you end the tour? What’s your future plans?
TE: I’m going into the ministry.
TE: And become a Catholic nun. Don’t know about Tommy. But that’s my plan.
TC: I’m actually working on a live album from shows that were recorded at various venues around the country. I’m trying to take the best and as many as we can fit on a new album. Something that represents a typical Castro and the Painkillers live show. The last time I did a live album was with the old band and that was like twenty some years ago. There were a couple of live shows with the blues revue, but it wasn’t so much my show live as it was the revue. A lot of other people were involved. And I’ve never made a live album with this group. As a band, we are so much better live. We make good records, but it’s still hard to capture that live experience in the studio. I’m really excited about it. I’ve been listening to a lot of shows and making decisions, and it’s easier than writing 12 new songs.
TE: The fans love live albums. Every artist we like have career-defining live albums – Allman Brothers At the Fillmore East, BB King Live at the Regal.
TC: Albert King Live at the Fillmore.
KP: When you guys get up on stage together do you just figure out what songs to play then or is there a set list?
TC: Oh, no. We don’t have a set list when we’re both on stage. We’ve thought of a couple of possible songs that could jam on and we should probably let our bands know those. What people want in a situation like that is an unrehearsed get together.
TE: I love the time in New York City when we jammed. I think we did “Keep on Smiling” (Wet Willie) there but then we did “Sex Machine” (James Brown), and the bass player’s (Randy McDonald) daughter (Blimes Brixton) got up and did a rap and brought the house down (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc84yHK2n2U). Remember that?
TC: Yep, yep. That’s what I told you about that funky beat that she could rap to.
TE: I tell you, it brought the house down.
TC: That kid has a video that went viral, her and another girl rapper, and they had somewhere in the area of ten million views. These kids don’t have any backing, they don’t have any management, they don’t have any record label, they’re just scrapping and what they manage to do is put out a lot of videos and create songs and get them out on the Internet. You know, it’s a struggle, but somehow this collaboration went viral on them so now they have a record label and now they have management and we’re all like ‘Sammy, one of these days, when you hit the big time, don’t forget about the old dudes.’
TE: Rock and Roll is for the young – for the young at heart.
TC: It’s kind of funny to watch all of the old grouchy people in the audience: “That’s ****** rap music.”
TE: Yeah, they’d be the same people that would boo Bob Dylan when he played electric.
TC: Yeah, she’s a talented kid. She writes her stuff pretty positive. The reason she was there, she was doing the merchandise with us. Trying to make a few bucks in between her career and spending time with her dad. I brought my son along to mix the band and the two of them became best buddies. They are like brother and sister now. They hadn’t spent that much time together before that.
I still really enjoy what I do—so much so, in fact, that I think I even appreciate it more those days. Looking forward to these shows man
TE: Me too.
KP: Yeah, look forward to seeing you guys when you come to town. Thanks so much for taking the time.
For more information about The “T’N’T Tour” with Tommy Castro and Tinsley Ellis see here https://www.facebook.com/events/514548225644116/