LIVE: Tommy Castro & the Painkillers @ the Upper Room, 10/18/16

Review by Greg Haymes

“It’s to lift you up when you’re down,” explained Tommy Castro on Tuesday evening. “That’s what the blues is all about.” And Castro and his band, the Painkillers, roared into Albany’s Upper Room and served up two hour-long sets of the blues that showcased hope and determination more often than heartbreak and despair.

Heck, by the end of the night he was “Shakin’ the Hard Times Loose,” with a gospel-inspired throwdown that had much of the crowd dancing up a storm like it was a Saturday night while Castro testified like some kind of cross between Delbert McClinton and James Brown.

With drummer Bowen Brown and bassist Randy McDonald providing the fuel, they charged through such optimistic gems as the bar-room boogie “I’m Not Broken” (“I may be broke, but I’m not broken”), “Anytime Soon” (“I know that a time will come when I won’t need to worry”) and the anthemic “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” (“Well, it’s not how many times a man falls down; It’s how many times he picks himself up”), which earned him a well-deserved mid-show standing ovation.

There was a Sly Stone-ish anthem of unity, “Common Ground,” after which Castro admitted, “I’m an old hippie at heart.” And the band capped off the evening with a righteous rendition of a nearly forgotten nugget, Wet Willie’s 1974 southern soul hit “Keep on Smilin’,” which had the crowd in
a sanctified call-and-response mode.

Back in the early ’90s, Bay Area bluesman Castro was hailed as the hot young guitarslinger – and, oh yes, he can certainly still wrangle mighty tasty riffage from his fretboard – but at age 61, he’s no longer the Next Big Thing on the blues scene. Fortunately, he’s also a impressive
vocalist, and while the band dipped into the songbags of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Clarence Carter throughout the night, over the course of his 25-year career, Castro has developed into a solid songwriter, as well.

His jazz-flecked “Ride” was one of the night’s early highlight’s with keyboardist Michael Emerson taking over the spotlight. Castro’s New Orleans-flavored R&B romp “Got a Lot” and the surging shuffle of his “Two Hearts” were other notable highlights of the night.

The band was a perfect fit for the Upper Room, which opened earlier this year on the second floor of the North Pearl Street building that once housed Jillian’s. Featuring a dozen or so cabaret-style tables up front, a handful of house-left VIP booths, a large bar, food and yes, even room for dancing, it’s an adult-audience-friendly venue. The knee-high stage is large enough to accommodate most bands, and the sound system is top notch. While their calendar is currently dominated by tribute bands, hopefully the word will get out that it’s a serious showcase club.

This review originally appeared in The Times Union.

Bad Luck (B.B. King)
Make It Back to Memphis
Right as Rain
Lose Lose
Got a Lot
The Devil You Know
It Serves You Right to Suffer (John Lee Hooker)
What You Gonna Do Now
I’m Qualified (Clarence Carter)
Two Hearts
I’m Not Broken
Anytime Soon
You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
Shine a Light
Common Ground
Shakin’ the Hard Times Loose
Keep on Smilin’ (Wet Willie)

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