By Don Wilcock

“One of the songs we’re going to do is ‘Tell the Truth’ by Derek & the Dominoes,” reveals Tommy Castro about his Six Strings Down Tour with Mike Zito, which touches down at Albany’s Upper Room on Wednesday night (April 26). “That’s kind of a blues, two guitars and two singers are on the tune.”

The sixth stop on a spring tour, Six Strings Down brings two of the most electric contemporary blues guitarists together for the first time. The two have a combined total of eight Blues Music Awards. They will be backed by Castro’s band The Painkillers and will play songs from Castro’s extensive repertoire and cuts from Zito’s popular new album Make Blues Not War.

“For some reason that record just jumped out for him when it came out on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart at No. 1. Not too bad,” says Castro. “Talk about timing, but it got off to a good start, and he’s just working out there doing all the right stuff, putting on good shows, writing good songs, making good records, and is working hard. It’s not easy starting out, getting the start in this area these days, and it’s not like it was when I started out. It’s much harder now for an act to get going.”

I first brought San Francisco native Tommy Castro to Greater Nippertown more than 20 years ago for the Troy Riverfront Arts Festival. His latest Alligator album, Method to My Madness, got a four-star review in Downbeat, and he showcased the tunes at his previous Upper Room concert back in October. But the album is a year and a half old now, and he wanted to inject something new into the tour. What better way than to team up with Zito whose high-energy sound fits hand-in-glove with Castro’s?

In addition to his own albums, Zito is also a co-founder of Royal Southern Brotherhood with Cyril Neville, Devon Allman, Charlie Wooton and Yonrico Scott.

When I talked to Castro more than two weeks ago, he and Zito had not yet had their one and only rehearsal before hitting the road. But they’ve jammed together many times, and both are true blues road warriors.

“We have picked out songs already. We’re going to do a few songs of Mike’s, a few songs of mine and a few choice covers that lend themselves to two guitar players and two singers.”

They also plan to do honor Chuck Berry’s passing. “Oh, of course, yeah. We must! There’s not enough time to pay tribute to everybody who’s died lately.”

Castro is recording his next Alligator Records album now, but it won’t hit the streets until next fall. “So, we needed to do something different for this spring tour, and it lined up so that Mike could come with us. That’s just going to be a hoot, you know. I know Mike well enough on a personal level. He’s a guy I like and who I respect and I can get along with just fine. He doesn’t have a big ego. Two guitar players on stage together you gotta fund the right people (laugh). There’s a handful of guys I could get up there with, and really have a good time because their heads are in the right place.”

Hearing him talk about twin guitars reminds me of John Mayall’s teaming of Coco Montoya and Walter Trout. Sometimes, the chemistry between two firebrands can be like rubbing two sticks of dynamite together.

“It’s not a cutting contest,” explains Castro. “It shouldn’t be. I don’t find any joy in that. It’s blues tradition, but I think it shows people’s lower selves. It’s not your higher self. You should look across the stage and want to work something out together that’s fun for everybody. So, that’s what this is supposed to be about, and frankly, what’s really important to me that I’m going to be doing this with an artist who’s got his head on straight. The intention is to have a good time jamming.”

The two have played together on the Delbert McClinton Cruise, the Legendary Rhythm ‘n Blues Blues Cruise. “Mike actually started out in St. Louis. We used to come and play St. Louis from time to time when we started out, and his band being a local St. Louis band, would sometimes open the show for us. We met back then, and I saw him again when he came out with his records on Eclecto Groove a few years back.”

Castro is in the game because he likes the process. He was almost 30 years old when he decided to make music a full-time occupation because he wanted to make a living at what he loves. It wasn’t about making money. It was about the music. He sees Mike Zito the same way.

“When we started out there were a lot more festivals. There were a lot more clubs in Everytown U.S.A. that specialized in blues. There were blues clubs everywhere, and now it’s just not like that. It’s a little tougher. Only the bands that are just really committed to doing good quality songs and just keep working at it are the ones eventually making it. That’s what Mike did. He just kept showing up at every gig on the road that he could get, and finally started getting traction. It’s great. It couldn’t happen to a greater guy. He’s a really good dude.”

WHAT: The Six Strings Down Tour
WHO: Tommy Castro and Mike Zito
WHERE: The Upper Room, Albany
WHEN: 7pm Wednesday (April 26)
HOW MUCH: $25 (general admission standing room); $35 (reserved table seating); $150 (six-person VIP booth)

LIVE: Tommy Castro & the Painkillers @ the Upper Room, 10/18/16

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