Alligator – 2014
13 tracks; 53 minutes
Tommy Castro has been at the top of the blues food chain for some years with a string of outstanding albums, a reputation for always giving 100% live and his integral role in the Blues Cruises. Throughout that time his band has had the usual comings and goings but when long-serving sax player Keith Crossan decided to leave it obviously gave Tommy food for thought. After a hiatus of almost five years since 2009’s “Hard Believer” Tommy’s new project The Painkillers has now released its debut disc. The first thing to note is that there are no horns anywhere on this disc though there are many guests filling in the sound and supporting the core quartet of Tommy on guitar and vocals, Randy McDonald on bass, James Pace on keys and Byron Cage on drums, with everybody providing backing vocals. Much of the material was written by Tommy, several songs with co-producer Bonnie Hayes.
The title track opens proceedings with an old-fashioned blues riff , vamping organ, crunching rhythm section and Tommy’s slide work double tracked against his own guitar sounds. This one is all blues and grows on you with repeated listens. “Second Mind” is more soul inflected and would certainly have worked with horn accents in the old band but is just fine here as Tommy sings it well and nails a strong solo; Jim Pugh adds organ to this one. Although “I’m Tired” is an old song from Chris Youlden (Savoy Brown), Tommy might have chosen it to express his artistic frustrations: “I’m tired of trying to be something I know ain’t me; I’m tired of living up to what people expect me to be.” Joe Bonamassa adds his distinctive guitar here and he and Tommy really burn it up. “Center Of Attention” is a fast-paced rocker with a rousing chorus and an interesting guitar solo with definite eastern influences. We then get a real old blues song – JB Lenoir’s “The Whale Have Swallowed Me” where Tommy shares the vocals with Tasha Taylor. Tommy’s slide and James’ honky tonk piano are at the core of this one. Another blues-referencing title follows with “When I Cross The Mississippi” with Tab Benoit sharing vocals with Tommy and he and Mark Karan adding more guitars: “When I cross the Mississippi I feel like I’m going home…I feel like I’ve got muddy water in my veins”. As a tribute to the great river this one works very well, both vocalists outstanding. Marcia Ball, another friend from the Blues Cruise, sits in on piano and vocals on “Mojo Hannah”, a classic piece of Louisiana music, once recorded by Art Neville.
Those cruises certainly provide a good way of making contacts, as Tommy demonstrates by being able to call on the Holmes Brothers for backing vocals on “Two Steps Forward”. Tommy’s guitar and Magic Dick’s harp work in unison to give a really heavy feel to the song that is then tempered by the gospel feel of the chorus where the Holmes chip in. Magic Dick’s harp playing here makes you understand how he got his moniker! “She Wanted To Give It To Me” returns to the basic quartet though co-writer Narada Michael Walden produced this track. Tommy’s vocals are very clear here on a tale of a ‘femme fatale’ whose overtures he rejects. The band excels on this one, Tommy’s aggressive guitar underpinned by swirling organ and the rhythm section keeping everything on track.
Wet Willie recorded “Keep On Smilin’” back in 1974 and one of the writers was Jimmy Hall, another friend of Tommy’s. This one has a lilting chorus of positive thinking and it is no surprise that it provided the encore when I saw Tommy live recently at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival. It’s a classic performance on which Tommy’s vocal range is well up to the task and his double tracked guitars have a real Southern Rock feel – a superb track. The final track on the album is “Medicine Woman” on which Samantha Fish duets with Tommy on vocals on a rocker with plenty of wah-wah from Tommy. However, Alligator have added two further tracks, both sides of a vinyl 45 released in early 2013 as interim evidence of the Painkillers’ progress. “That’s All I Got” was the B-Side, a co-write with Terry Wilson (Teresa James’ partner and producer), a soulful song with some searing guitar; A-Side “Greedy” was written by Tommy and Randy and denounces the ‘money is all that matters’ attitudes that dog our society.
On first listen long-time fans will certainly miss the horns but be patient because there is a lot of fine material here. Not perhaps as immediately accessible as some of Tommy’s older albums but well worth investigating.