Alligator Records AL 4978
12 songs – 51 minutes
West Coast-based Tommy Castro faced a dilemma that many musicians go through a few years ago: After fronting a horn band for the better part of two decades, it was time to reinvent himself. It was becoming more and more difficult to support a large group despite one of the most extensive touring schedules in the business.
As he explained in detail at the time on his website, it was a difficult decision, especially because of the close relationships he’d built while fronting a band that was a surefire bet for top award nominations year in and year out. In 2014, the Tommy Castro Band (TCB), its horn section and soulful sounds were no more, replaced by The Painkillers, a tight four-piece unit that produced a sound that delved more into rock with soul-blues overtones.
If you were a fan of his old band, however, there’s good news: Stompin’ Ground finds Castro and The Painkillers delivering the same TCB style of music that kept folks up and dancing since emerging from San Jose, Calif., in the mid-’90s.
Produced by Castro and Kid Andersen at Andersen’s Greaseland Studios, this album has been in heavy rotation on blues stations around the globe since debuting a couple of months ago with Tommy smoking up the airwaves on guitar and vocals backed by bassist Randy McDonald, drummer Bowen Brown and keyboard player Michael Emerson.
Kid contributes rhythm and acoustic guitar, some bass, tambourine and backing vocals as well as saz, a stringed, Middle Eastern instrument. And several top names make guest appearances.
Joining the action for one cut each are guitarist David Hidalgo of Los Lobos fame, harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite and guitarist Mike Zito, all of who provide vocals. Danielle Nicole shares the mike on one tune, and Nancy Wright (sax) and John Halbleib (trumpet) add horns on three cuts. Lisa Leuschner Andersen and Robby Yamilov, who recorded the disc with Kid, also provide backing vocals.
Castro’s using the album to create material that speaks to a modern audience in the same way blues, soul and rock spoke to him during his formative years in the ’70s, interspersing six originals with six numbers that influenced him so much in the past.
The TCB sound returns from the jump with Wright and Halbleib present for three of the first four cuts. “Nonchalant” opens with a brief guitar intro before erupting into a passionate original about “a hidden treasure that shines like gold.” It doesn’t take long for the listener to realize that the prize is a woman who remains beautiful, but mysterious because of the casual way she presents herself. Despite her cool demeanor, you can feel her power from across the room.
A cover of Johnny Ace’s “Blues All Around Me” swings from the jump before Castro speaks out against the political climate sweeping the world today in a run of four well-intentioned originals. “Fear Is The Enemy” addresses the inner turmoil many folks currently deal with when reflecting about world events — especially the “them or us” mentality putting everyone ill at ease. Next, the slow blues “My Old Neighborhood” provides a glimpse of the way things used to be when Tommy was growing up in a working-class environment in a place where hippies and street-hardened Mexican-Americans got along and always knew where they stood.
The theme gets darker for “Enough Is Enough,” a hard-driving boogie, which states “if you push me too far, I’m going to push back” and warns “there’s going to be a revolution, because we need a real solution.” The groove keeps the tension moving forward. The block concludes with “Love Is,” a bottom-driven funk. In times like this, Castro says, positive thoughts about romance are “the only reason to keep keepin’ on.”
Fear not, however. The balance of the disc is a soulful, upbeat blast. Covers of Elvin Bishop’s “Rock Bottom,” Delaney & Bonnie’s “Soul Shake,” Taj Mahal’s “Further On Down The Road,” Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” and Titus Turner’s “Sticks And Stones,” a hit for Ray Charles, are all pleasers. The action ends with the wry original, “Live Every Day,” a country-blues duet with Musselwhite that insists to live every day “like it’s the last one of your life because one of these days you’re gonna be right.”
Stompin’ Ground is a gem that swings from a rock-solid foundation. Available wherever fine albums are sold. Pick it up today. You won’t be disappointed.