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For a guy who plays the blues, Albert Castiglia www.albertcastiglia.com seems to be having way too much fun. Holding court onstage during a recent Friday night at Hooligan's Pub and Oyster Bar in Pinecrest, he and his back-up band run through a set that includes cuts from his debut disc, Burn, as well as a handful of retro rock standards by the Band and the Allman Brothers. It's an unexpected and offbeat cover of the Commodores' "Easy" ("That's why I'm sleazy ... anyone here from Wisconsin? ... Kind of cheesy") and the funky disco medley that follows, though, that show him giving a nod to his silly side.
"Please don't say I played that," he pleads, gazing at the writer sitting at a nearby table.
Not to worry: A withering take on Bob Dylan's "Seven Days," a rocking version of the old standard "That's All Right Mama," and a string of searing blues riffs are proof positive that Castiglia hasn't sacrificed his edge or integrity. Bobbing incessantly, he wrings every last note, and then some, from a blistering solo before stepping back to the mike to sing in a world-weary moan. There's something in his authoritative presence that echoes Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winters, and Muddy Waters.
Clearly the crowd's enthralled. While a few folks venture onto the dance floor, Castiglia's grit-in-the-groove style manages to stop most in their tracks, gluing them to their seats, where they stare at him as if transfixed. "He has a charming presence," notes Ned Berndt, drummer with the bar band Flashback and a frequent sit-in with Castiglia and company, as he watches from the dance floor. "He connects with people. He knows how to move a crowd's energy."
Always the entertainer, Castiglia tosses in his trademark stage patter. "Fasten your funky seatbelts," he cautions before launching into an R&B medley consisting of Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" and Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher." "Keep drinkin' what you're drinkin' and thinkin' what you're thinkin'," he advises as the set winds down. And then there's the signature sign-off: "I'm Albert Castiglia, from the blues capital of the world ... Coral Gables, Florida!"
That last comment elicits the most chuckles. After all, Coral Gables is as far from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago's downtown dives as a Porsche is from a pickup truck.
Born in New York City in 1969, Castiglia has lived in the City Beautiful since the age of five. He traces his interest in music to his father, a former doo-wop singer, and an uncle who taught him to play guitar when he was twelve. In junior high, he was turned on to Hendrix and Dylan, but it was a Muddy Waters album, Hard Again, that gave him his first real exposure to the blues. "His voice was so powerful, I ran under the bed," he recalls admiringly. "I was fourteen or fifteen, and that's when I decided I wanted to play the blues for a living. That one album changed my life."
By the time he was eighteen, Castiglia was playing in South Florida clubs while holding down a day job as a social service investigator for the state welfare office. "It was killing me," he confides. "I worked eight to ten hours, and then played until two in the morning." The rigorous routine lasted eight years until a fortuitous encounter at the now-defunct Back Room blues joint in Delray Beach on New Year's Eve, 1996. That was when Gloria Pierce, a friend of the evening's headliner, blues great Junior Wells, managed to snag him an invitation onstage. "I said to Junior, 'Let Albert sit in, you'll like him'," Pierce remembers. "Sure enough, he not only played well, he just fit in. I already knew that the relationship would last. Within a month or two, Junior had Albert on the road with him. Junior loved Albert."
"I had a lot to learn but I didn't realize it at the time. The road was a real learning experience," Castiglia says of the eight months he spent touring the U.S. and Europe with Wells, first as a fill-in, then as his full-time lead guitarist. He also witnessed the sleazier side of the blues circuit. "I saw some wild stuff," he says. "Lots of partying ... lots of pitfalls.... There were drugs like crazy, it was rampant. But I never got caught up in that."
Castiglia relocated to Chicago after Wells fell ill and passed away in 1998. He and the remnants of Wells's band spent the next three and a half years touring with Atlanta singer Sandra Hall, contributing to her 2001 album, Miss Riding Hood. Eventually he opted to move back to Miami and start a solo career.
"When I lived in Chicago I didn't think I'd be coming back," Castiglia admits. "But it was a hard scene to break into. The cost of living was really high and I wasn't making a lot of money. I was splitting my time between Chicago and Miami and I felt like I had dual citizenship. Plus there's a lot of discrimination towards white blues players, especially when you front your own band. Not that I'm complaining. I loved it there." Despite his experience -- and the fact that New Timesnamed him Best Local Blues Guitarist in 1997 -- he wasn't exactly welcomed back here with open arms. Gigging solely in Chicago and flying to Miami just to visit his parents for the past three years meant that he was no longer a familiar face in South Florida clubs. "It was tough in the beginning. I had to start over to a degree," he concedes. "It didn't matter I had played with Junior."
Eventually, though, his reputation and the word of mouth generated by his electric performances prevailed. These days he's a fixture at Tobacco Road, Sax on the Beach, and Titanic Brewery and Restaurant. Last January he and his band -- keyboardist Jerry Mascaro, bassist Steve Gaskell, and drummer Bob Amsel -- journeyed to Memphis as representatives of the South Florida Blues Society to perform in the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge for the title of "Best Unsigned Band." While they didn't advance to the finals, facing off against 90 other bands from throughout the world gave them their first taste of global competition.
Castiglia also touts Burn, his 2002 solo album, which featured contributions from Iko Iko bassist Graham Drout. "I met him at a jam session at Tobacco Road in the early Nineties," Drout recalls. "I didn't see him for around five years and then when I did, I thought, 'Holy cow, that's the real deal.' Later I went up to him and said, 'You gotta make a record.' It took another year -- in Miami everything takes a year -- and there were other delays. But it brought us together."
Castiglia and Drout went to Nashville to record, their seven months of songwriting yielding eleven songs: two by Castiglia, four by Drout, and two joint compositions, along with three covers. Like his live sets, the album bears a number of familiar references, from Little Feat to Stevie Ray Vaughan. It's blues-based, for sure, but with a revved-up rock and roll sensibility that propels it.
"I write music as original as I can," insists Castiglia. "The songs are based on life experience, personal relationships, life on the road. It's all honest, real stuff." Still he concedes that there's little reason to cry the blues. "I'm so damn happy now," he confesses, motioning toward his girlfriend. "I don't know what I can write about that has to do with blues. Of course the last time I said that about a girl, she broke up with me the next day."