Album review: TOMMY CASTRO Presents A Bluesman Came To Town: A Blues Odyssey

Tommy Castro - A Bluesman Came To Town

Alligator Records [Release date: 17.09.21]

Every since breaking nationally on NBC’s Comedy Showcase, San Francisco’s Tommy Castro has enjoyed a well founded reputation in the new blues vanguard for his willingness to explore new avenues in the blues genre.

Down the years he’s dipped into a melange of blues, rock, funk soul and r&b, while more recently paying closer attention to the rhythmic quality of his grooves.

And after 4 decades of profile building and deserved critical acclaim, he’s still buoyed by the same enduring mantra: “I never made the same record twice.”

And so after scooping the Male Artist of the Year, Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, Band of the Year Award and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award, you might ask where else is there for him to go?

He delivers the answer loud and clear on ‘Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Town’,  a blues concept album that finds him applying his soulful grooves and resonant playing to the story of a nascent blues man who lives the dream, but never quite turns his back on home.

He’s enlisted the talents of award winner, producer/songwriter Tom Hambridge whose imprint is to be found all over the contemporary blues scene from Buddy Guy - ‘Blues Prisoner’ which could easily have come off Guy’s last ‘The Blues Is Alive and Well’ album - to James Cotton, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Quinn Sullivan and Joe Bonamassa.

Hambridge’s undoubted talent can actually work both ways, for while he delivers the magical fairy dust as a producer, an acclaimed songwriter and as on this album an ‘in the pocket’ drummer, he is arguably the reason why much of the contemporary blues output sounds homogenous.

Happily Castro pulls off a slight of hand by making sure the songs and various musical styles amplify the coherent story line and draw the listener into a timeless blues tale with a beginning, middle and end.

The result is an accessible and satisfying album that plays to Tommy’s strengths as a fiery guitarist with soulful vocal chops, who always serves the song first and only stretches out later.

He invest his music with an emotional veracity as evidenced by the opening ‘Somewhere’, which is beautifully reprised at the end of the album on dobro and with a suitable lyrical conclusion.

On the opening version his tremulous slide guitar locks horns with Jimmy Hall’s husky harp on a choogling mid-tempo groove that nicely levers us into his musical storyboard.

The swampy title track sets out his hero’s search for a better life as a bluesman. Castro interweaves the track with mellifluous guitar lines before delivering the thematic hook: “Once he heard that guitar, man it shook him to the ground, the bluesman came to town he felt the tug, blues man came to town, he caught bug. The boy breathed in that sound when the bluesman came to town.”

The great thing about this album is the way Castro reaches deep into the fabric of the stories to ensure that each song is illuminated by both his playing and expressive singing.

His blues odyssey traces the ups and downs of a blues man who is fuelled by the optimism of the title track, but who also trawls the lows on ‘I Got Burned’ which is all stinging guitar and tinkling ivories over a whip-crack rhythm section.

His vocal phrasing really gets inside the slow blues of ‘Blues Prisoner’ as his sinewy guitar lines and Kevin McKendree’s rolling piano populate a classic slow blues which builds with unrelenting intensity

He cleverly juxtaposes the latter with an outright rocker with the uplifting title of ‘I Caught A Break’.

It’s a sister track to ‘Child Don’t Go’, an earlier train-time rocker and ‘call and response’ gospel style duet with Terrie Odabi. This song alone serves to illustrate Castro‘s ability to slip through the gears as the moment demands.

Much deeper in the album he adds the slide-led, riff driven ‘Bring It Back’ on which his hero lets his heart lead him back home.

The album cleverly illustrates every facet of a bluesman roller coaster working environment. There’s the youthful aspirations of the title track through a yearning soulful love song ‘You To Hold On To’, to the business side of the blues, as expressed by the greasy funk of the aptly titled ‘Hustle’, on which Keith Crossan’s sax work evokes early career War.

He toughens up his vocals and his guitar tone on the riff rocking ‘Women Drugs and Alcohol’ and searches for balance on the undulating funky groove of ‘Draw The Line.’, which owes much to Tommy MacDonald bass line and brings out a stellar vocal and intense guitar performance from Castro.

In contrast he draws on real feel and southern soul alongside special guest Deanna Bogart, who adds the perfect sax led resolution to the self explanatory ‘I Want To Go Back Home’.

Each song fits perfectly like a piece in a blues man’s jigsaw puzzle, as Castro achieves the difficult task of bringing fresh meaning to a genre that too often settles on good playing, but is hampered by lyrical cliché.

He tells us that the songs here are not autobiographical, but the fact that the themes are familiar, gives the material an almost universal flavour, the very thing quality songwriters always strive for.

Like the album’s subtitle ‘a blues odyssey’ suggests, we’re taken on a musical journey that finishes with the ambivalent contentment of having lived the kind of life that Castro himself knows so well. ****½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra,

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