Tommy Castro knows what he wants to hear when he puts on an album.
"When I listen to a record, I want to be taken on a little ride," says the rock- and R&B-influenced bluesman. "You want to listen to a record all the way down. You don't want a record that you don't want to listen to past track six. I wanted this one to be one that people are going to be saying, 'What's he going to do now?'"
This one is Hard Believer, Castro's 10th solo album and his first for Alligator Records. On it, Castro does versions of Bob Dylan and Allen Toussaint songs and lays out a little autobiography, while showcasing his soulful vocals and stinging blues guitar.
The Dylan song is a rather surprising choice — "Gotta Serve Somebody," from his 1979 gospel album Slow Train Coming.
"It's one of those songs I've always loved," Castro explains. "Dylan's lyric writing is amazing. As a songwriter, I'm in awe of the stuff that rolls off his brain.
"The way they did it on the Dylan record, there was this open groove. I thought that should have guitar in it. I'd never heard anybody make a big guitar song out of it. That's what I wanted to do, and what I think we did."
The Toussaint cover, "Victims of the Darkness," was brought to Castro by producer John Porter and quickly adopted by the musician and his band. Its hard New Orleans funk is different from anything the band has ever done, he says. So is the unclassifiable "The Trouble with Soul," which closes the record.
"That song kind of grabbed me," he says. "I kept wanting to play it again. It let me play a little different style of guitar. I stretch out on my guitar work a little on this album."
While re-emphasizing his guitar playing, Castro continued to concentrate on songwriting for Hard Believer, writing or co-writing half of its 12 tunes, including the recession blues number "Trimmin' Fat" and the clever, psychological "Monkey's Paradise," which he says is one of his favorite songs on the release.
Even with its variety, the album is still in the Castro ballpark, a record that reflects his roots and the music that he and his band love.
"I've always been a soul man at the core," he says. "I'm a blues guitar player and a soul singer. I've always tried to put those things together. Those are my influences. I love soul artists, blues artists and really good rock 'n roll."
As has been the case since he played in the Dynatones, the great San Francisco soul band from the late '80s, Castro's back on the road with his new record. Like nearly all of his peers, he's finding life out there to be a little harder these days, with clubs closing across the country and others cutting back on live music.
"I think it's a little tougher," says Castro. "But for guys like me, it's never been easy. We're used to it. I put one foot in front of the other and do the most logical thing and it seems to work. If I still try to put on good shows and try to put out a good record and do my business with integrity, I just keep moving. The bottom doesn't fall out."