Album review: TOMMY CASTRO AND THE PAIN KILLERS – The Devil You Know




Alligator records [Release date 20.01.14]

While this album is a slimmed down version of Tommy Castro And The Pain Killers, there’s actually some 14 guest musicians helping him out in the absence of his previous horn section. Whatever the line-up, Tommy gives his all as always, on an album full of his unquenchable fire, even if it is perhaps a couple of songs short of being his best effort.

Tommy has always been a passionate singer, a tough guitar player and a spontaneous performer and when he tells us that on ‘The Devil You Know’ he’s: ‘using drum rhythms to drive the lyrics’, you are not about to argue. It’s that relentless percussive feel from his trusty rhythm section of bassist Randy McDonald and drummer Byron Cage that injects the album with a constant sense of urgency, if not restlessness.

All 13 tracks have a live in the studio feel, but are lovingly polished by Tommy and bass player Bonnie Hayes’s self production, save for ‘She Wanted To Give It To Me’, of which more later.

From the opening double lines of the title track, with its Yardbirds style vocal accompaniment’, Tommy digs deep for his muscular brand of blues-rock and r&b. It’s almost as if he’s constantly looking to go the extra yard. Much like his concert performances, this album is full of gut wrenching blues-rock from the heart, which is nicely encapsulated by title of the penultimate track, ‘That’s All I Got’.

Jimmy Pugh adds a Santana style organ part on the percussive intro to the funky ‘Second Mind’, which bubbles up nicely as it works towards the uplifting hook. The same funky feel anchors the bruising, Narada Michael Walden produced ‘She Wanted To Give It To Me’. It’s notable for being simple quartet piece with no guests, as Walden encourages Tommy to fill the track with a blistering solo which contrasts sharply with the stripped funky root of the song. His impassioned vocal and incendiary guitar builds to a notable climax with some belated tension busting laughter at the end.

Most of the song’s are co-writes, with exception of four well chosen covers and Tommy’s very own ‘Two Steps Forward’ which is a bruising, harp riffed affair and features the legendary Magic Dick (from The J. Geils Band) on harp. Tommy gives him plenty of room in an arrangement that is full of intensity and mutual musical respect.

Chris Youlden’s ‘I’m Tired’ is the best of the covers. The Savoy Brown classic is perfectly suited to the Castro/Bonamssa joust that brings the song bang up to date and makes light of the fact it was written over 40 years ago. It’s a delicately balanced stop-time arrangement featuring Tommy’s coarse vocal and a fluid guitar break, that bursts forth like a raging torrent and would surely make Kim Simmonds smile.

The following ‘Centre Of Attention’ pushes Tommy’s big riffs to the centre stage of a big production, full of pounding drums and rumbling bass. Once again the emphasis is placed on the dynamics of the arrangement right down to the perfunctory ending. It’s a track well suited to Tommy’s passionate performance as is ‘When I Cross The Mississippi’, which is similarly full of riff driven bluster and busy organ sweeps, but features an additional vocal from Tab Benoit, over a relentless percussive back beat.

Tommy explores a Latino feel and slide guitar as he duets with Tasha Taylor alongside James Pace’s busy piano on J.B. Lenoir’s ‘The Whale Have Swallowed Me’. It sounds like the kind of track an outside producer might have chosen, but Tommy’s slide keeps the track back on target.

The call and response of ‘Mojo Hannah’ finds Tommy duetting with Marcia Ball on the kind of song you could imagine him working into his ever changing set list. Samantha Fish’s high register vocal soars over James Pace’s piano figure,  give ‘Medicine Woman’ a different feel, before Tommy slips and slides around Page’s piano led outro.

Tommy finishes with ‘Greed’,  his caustic take on contemporary times. It was the lead track on a double-sided single that was originally only available as a download and at gigs, but it bookends the album nicely by adding heartfelt lyrics to incendiary playing, as his solo burns with the same vigour as his lyric intent.

Tommy Castro doesn’t do things by half, and while the inclusion of so many guests might  might be trying to counter balance his stripped down quartet line-up, there’s no disguising his down to the bone playing, which makes ‘The Devil You Know’ a familiar, quality calling card from one of the most dependable musicians on the circuit. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra 

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