West Coast blues-rocker Tommy Castro has released 16 albums on several labels, played 150 to 200 dates a year for a loyal and ever-growing audience, and won awards and respect from his peers. He has remained a vital musician, pushing his music ever forward. Castro & the Painkillers' A Bluesman Came to Town, produced by Tom Hambridge, is arguably the first blues concept album. It's about a farm boy who discovers the blues, learns to play guitar, and hits the road. One needn't follow the story to enjoy it. A remarkably diverse set, its 13 original songs careen across roadhouse, Chicago, and modern electric blues, roots rock, soul, and even funk.
"Somewhere" is a swampy, wrangling slide guitar blues with wailing harmonica by guest Jimmy Hall. The first-person lyrics highlight the protagonist's desire to escape his dull rural life. The title track offers a soaring vocal and swirling leads in a story about the beginnings of an itinerant wanderer offering experiential advice against meeting the Devil at the crossroads. Oakland blues queen Terrie Odabi duets with Castro on "Child Don't Go," a rocking gospel-blues that's as much Saturday night as it is Sunday morning. "You to Hold on To" was inspired by the Stax Otis Redding-Steve Cropper fakebook. It showcases Castro's resonant emotional power as a singer. The Wurlitzer piano, organ, and entwining guitars buoy and frame his protagonist's pleading lyric.
The sleek, funky "Hustle" reflects James Brown's influence, with a mantra-like vamp from fingerpopping staccato horns, wah-wah guitar, and an octave-drop bassline. "Blues Prisoner" offers a lowdown steamy drama worthy of Albert King in a 12-bar blues played in 3/4 time. It contrasts Castro's testifying, confessional vocal, Kevin McKendree's cautionary upright piano, and mean single-string guitar fills in a dark, unruly blues storm. On "I Caught a Break," Castro's raspy, punchy delivery recalls Delbert McClinton's in a Chuck Berry-esque stomp, whereas "Women Drugs and Alcohol" is a tale of vice, pleasure, and pain in the dialect of barnstorming blues-rock. The atmospheric guitar intro to "Draw the Line" gives way to a midtempo, minor-key Chicago-style shuffle driven by Wurlitzer electric piano, reverbed tom-toms, and Castro's razor-sharp leads. His road-weary voice confesses the protagonist's wandering, losses, and soul-defeating compromises. "I Want to Go Back Home" is a return to soul as Castro's croon evokes the rough sweetness of Redding, as well as the roadhouse desperation of Southside Johnny. It features gorgeous alto sax playing from guest Deanna Bogart. "Bring It on Back" delivers a lyric about a soul-quaking epiphany amid nasty, distorted, slide-saturated blues-rock; it sets up a stripped-down reprise of "Somewhere" with just acoustic slide and muffled drum kit. All told, A Bluesman Came to Town is a towering achievement for Castro. Through the roots and blues vocabulary, excellent songwriting, musical imagination, and inspired performances, he offers an unflinching, behind-the-scenes look at the joys, perils, and defeats in a traveling musician's life.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo