LIVE: Tommy Castro and the Painkillers @ Caffe Lena, 03/20/2022

Tommy Castro Takes A Caffe Lena Sold-out Crowd to The Moon

Tommy Castro is an example of the Alligator Records business model. The premier blues label signs artists who are the best at sending their fans into ecstasy with styles firmly grounded in traditional blues but able to add their own unique seasoning that appeals to today’s fans of blues-rock, a contemporary descendent of what John Mayall did best on “The Beano” album with Eric Clapton in 1966. 

Photo by Glenn Kaplowitz

In 60 years of attending Caffe Lena concerts, I can’t remember ever seeing an audience at that iconic house of folk driven into such a constant frenzy by an act. Castro and his band The Painkillers delivered two one-hour sets that shook the brick walls and probably had the late Lena Spencer as the cliché goes spinning in her grave. Never have I seen an act there that was so pure roadhouse raucous. 

What separates Castro from the myriad of blues-rock wannabes is that his playing is grounded in a solid mastery of electric blues fundamentals as he proved on “Freight Train Let Me Ride,” a slide guitar tour-de-force by the late Ron Thompson, a fellow Californian whose credits include work with John Lee Hooker, Etta James. and Big Mama Thornton. The song borrows heavily from such classic Elmore James numbers as “Dust My Broom” and Castro played like a blues gangster in a back alley straight razor fight to the finish. 

Photo by Glenn Kaplowitz

Castro referred to his latest album A Blues Man Comes to Town as a “blues opera,” the genre’s answer to The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.” Castro said his label – read that as Bruce Iglauer, Alligator CEO – prefers the appellation “blues odyssey,” 13 songs about the trials and lessons learned by a road warrior constantly traveling from town to town. Parked on Phila Street and taking up half a downtown Saratoga block was Castro’s bus with California plates.  

Tom Hambridge is listed as producer and co-writer on 12 of the album’s 13 songs, most of them as a principal writer. Castro told me he enjoyed working with Hambridge who’s become as ubiquitous a presence in contemporary blues as Willie Dixon was at Chess Records in the ’50s and ’60s. While Castro says he added some lyrics of his own, most of the songs are autobiographical and atypical of his repertoire including 16 releases in his 30 years on the road. Hambridge has done the same here as he did on Kingfish Ingram’s two albums. They offer an insider’s look at what Castro’s learned navigating the mean streets of a white man’s version of the chitlin circuit. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Castro did only a few of the new album’s songs in concert including the album’s title song, “Blues Prisoner,” and Chuck Berry-like “I Caught A Break.” His bread and butter are in numbers reaching back to 1995 when I had the honor of introducing him to this market on his first foray east of Chicago at the Riverfront Arts Festival in Troy. 

Photo by Glenn Kaplowitz

The second set included numbers from earlier albums and classics like “Let Me Love You Baby” written by Willie Dixon and made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan and “My Left Eye Jumps,” one of Buddy Guy’s earliest songs written long before Tom Hambridge co-wrote Buddy’s defining number, “Skin Deep.” 

In my review of A Bluesman Comes to Town in Blues Music Magazine I wrote, “Like B.B. King’s best songs, Castro’s guitar is more than a melody maker. It’s almost as important as the lyrics in telling the story, and it’s more nuanced here than on any of his previous releases.” 

Castro’s Painkillers band consists of bassist Randy McDonald (with him for 30 years), keyboardist Michael Emerson, and drummer Bowen Brown. Emerson often played two electric keyboards at once and was nothing short of spectacular. Together, they played like brothers of another mother. 

At the end of the show, the guy sitting next to me told me that he was going home to practice his guitar all night. It was that kind of inspiring show. 

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