Album review: TOMMY CASTRO & THE PAINKILLERS – Killin’ It Live

Tommy Castro & The Pain Killers - Killin' It Live

Alligator Records [Release Date 01.02.19]

From the moment Tommy Castro yells out “Party time everybody, it’s Saturday night”, we’re in the thrall of a perfect performance.

For all his song writing ability and guitar chops, Tommy is the consummate performer who knows how to work an audience and get the best out of his band while making a magical connection with a crowd. This makes for a great club gig and an excellent live album.

‘Killing It Live’ is all about a road tested band and its ability to seize the moment. So it is, that TC and The Painkillers lean into the uplifting feel of ‘Make It Back To Memphis’ on which his gritty vocals, opening stinging guitar line and Mike Emerson’s ebullient piano solo is a snapshot of plenty more to come. His humorous lyrics also wryfully recall results of undercover partying:  “Now the needles on empty, I can see it by the light of the moon, And if we make it back to Memphis, we’re gonna have to make it on fumes”.

The following track ‘Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’ could almost be autobiographical, as Castro has put in the time, the work and creativity to carve out a high-end career that continues to prosper with releases such as this.

Sleepy John Estes’s ‘Leaving Trunk’ is given a muscular band arrangement, and he picks the perfect moment for the more restrained ‘Lose Lose’, on which his big tone and expressive attack sits perfectly with Mike Emerson’s piano work, as they build a slow blues perfectly to great encouragement from the crowd.

The celebratory shuffle of ‘Calling San Francisco’ finds Castro soloing at his intensive best. It’s also a great example of how he builds a mellifluous set from a series of live cuts culled from different shows across Texas, New York, Michigan and California. And while credit must go to engineer Ron Alan Cohen, his job is made easier by the consistency of the band’s performances here.

‘Shaking The Hard Times Loose’ adds some echo laden twang guitar on an intense rocker that could be John Fogerty, while the lighter feel of a similar outing ‘Two Hearts’, finds the band closer to a poppy feel.

The grooves are fat without losing any focus or edge, and Castro’s own solos are spirited, economical but always delivered with sufficient intensity and spark to illuminate the material.

Castro is a great vocalist too, as he stretches his white boy soul phrasing into r&b and gut-bucket blues. His versatility is rooted in meaningful songs with musical accompaniment that colours rather than dominates the song.

He does this so well because of his tight band that revels in some sparkling interplay and brings the best out of their band leader.

Listen to the funky ‘She Wanted To Give It To Me’, which combines a gritty rapped out vocal with interwoven piercing guitar lines within a tension building song. Its framed by the funky rhythm section of  bassist Randy McDonald, drummer Bowen Brown and a stellar keyboard player Mike Emerson who switches to organ for a intense solo.

‘Killin’ It Live’ is an aptly titled album that delivers in spades. Tommy Castro is a one of the most underrated figures on the contemporary blues scene and this live cut redresses the balance with a joyous exposition of what he does so well.

It’s all there on the closing tub thumping funk of ‘Them Changes’. The Pain Killers bring fresh energy and relentless drive to the well heeled Buddy Miles cover, as they stretch out one last time in front of an appreciative Austin crowd, to round off a great live compilation. It doesn’t get any better. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra


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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)

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