F ar from the fiashlit world of misogynist rappers and super-hyped rock bands, there’s a network of restaurants and barrooms across America that offers local heroes the chance to play on a regular basis. In Miami, the history-laden Tobacco Road once a hangout of Al Capone, show cases live music seven nights a week. The Titanic Brewery, in Coral Gables, features classic rock and blues on weekends. Do well there and you’ll move on to other Florida locations: the Rosey Baby Crawfish and Cajun House in Ft. Lauderdale, perhaps, or Orlando’s House of Blues.On any given Saturday night, you’re likely to find Albert Castiglia working a stage somewhere in the Sunshine State. Though he paid his dues as a sideman in Chicago and toured the world with Junior Wells, the singer guitarist has spent the past five years building a following at Florida venues of varying sizes. “Sports bars are real tough because you have to compete with 20 fiat-screen TVs with the football game on,” he says. “Small restaurants are tough, too, because you have to hold back.” When Castiglia returned to his adopted hometown of Coral Gables five years ago, looking to breakout of the sideman role, he found it was like starting his career all over again. “The fact that you toured and played with some of the heaviest cats in Chicago — and the world, for that matter — means nothing when you break out on your own. You have to prove yourself as a frontman, not a sideman.”.
By any fair measure, Castiglia has done that. His highly anticipated second album, A Stone’s Throw, was released this spring on Blues Leaf Records, and his festival bookings are already on the increase. “I’m making a living doing what I love to do,” says the 36-year-old, who sums up his current state of affairs with the mantra “It’s all good.”Born in New York to a Cuban mother and an Italian father, Castiglia moved to the Miami area with his family at age 5. When he was in his mid-teens, the Muddy Waters album Hard Again bit him with the blues bug. “The first thing you hear when you pop the cassette in,” he says, “is Muddy’s booming voice on ‘Mannish Boy,’ which segues into his powerful band coming in. That was that. I knew I wanted to play blues for a living.” He began his working life in social services, making music in his spare time. A chance encounter on New Year’s Eve 1996 changed all that. That night, Junior Wells headlined a show in Delray Beach, Fla., and invited Castiglia to sit in. The young player so impressed Wells that the harpist took him on the road a few months later. “There were moments on the road where he would play like he had a glow around him,” says Castiglia of the aging legend. He remained Wells’ full-time lead guitarist until the Chicago bluesman’s death in 1998.
Wells’ band actually remained together after his passing, with Castiglia handling frontman duties when the band wasn’t supporting Atlanta singer Sandra Hall. Having already been named Best Local Blues Guitarist by a Miami newspaper, Castiglia eventually decided to return to his Florida roots.A key figure in his creative development for the past five years has been Graham Drout of the South Florida-based outfit Iko-Iko, whom Castiglia first met at a jam in the early ‘90s. “Graham is one of the most underrated songwriters in the world, and the finest songwriter I know,” he says. When Castiglia recorded his first album, Burn (2002), he chose Drout’s band to accompany him on the sessions. Drout has also become his main songwriting partner, contributing several songs to Burn and a couple of standouts to A Stone’s Throw. Asked to describe his approach to performing, Castiglia credits Wells with teaching him a thing or two. “Stage presence was probably the greatest thing I learned from him,” he says. “He had a great relationship with his audience. He opened himself up to them and made them feel like they were part of the show.” A recent appearance in Ft. Lauderdale illustrates Castiglia’s commitment. To make the gig, he was forced to skip a family funeral.“It’s a lot easier to cancel out of gigs when you’re a sideman,” he says. Once at the club, the act of communion with his audience carried him away from personal worries. “A gentleman walked up to me and told me he came all the way from Sweden to see me that night. Another guy drove 20 miles on his boat with his friends to catch the show,” he recalls. “It was one of those gigs where everything went right. The band was tight and the crowd was deeply into it. It was spiritual, in a way.”Still, living in the place known as City Beautiful, Castiglia admits it’s not easy surviving on a bluesman’s wages. “It’s just enough to get you by. [But] the money is just a small part of it. It’s about the music and the good feeling it generates when it’s played well.”Is it safe to assume, then, that Castiglia has no regrets about giving up social work for life as a professional musician“I think I’ve done more of a service to people playing the blues,” he says, “than I ever did working at the welfare office.”