Review: Roots Veteran Tommy Castro Crafts a Provocative and Unique Blues Song Cycle

Tommy Castro
Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came to Town
(Alligator)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

It’s difficult to understand why veteran blues-rocker Tommy Castro hasn’t registered in the same way that the similarly styled Joe Bonamassa has. The West Coast-based Castro has been banging out solid albums filled with sturdy originals since 1994, six years before Bonamassa released his debut, and has toured relentlessly.

Even though the prolific Bonamassa has released more albums and has successfully marketed himself for decades, Castro’s voice is more soulful and he delivers just as energetic a performance, albeit on a far smaller scale.

Castro’s fifth studio set for the revered Alligator imprint reminds us of just how talented, and overlooked, he is. As the disc’s title implies, this is a song cycle. The story follows the journey of a young man from a small town; one who dreams of becoming a famous blues musician after being inspired when a “Bluesman Came to Town,” achieves some level of success (“I Caught a Break”), falls prey to the excesses of fame (“Women, Drugs and Alcohol”) and finally realizes that there truly is no place like home (“I Wanna Go Back Home”).

If this sounds like a clichéd cautionary tale we’ve heard before, it doesn’t affect the overall quality of the music. Rather he and drummer/co-producer Tom Hambridge, who helped write the majority of the tracks, wrap the frontman’s talents as a convincing singer, rugged guitarist, and exciting performer, into a musically diverse batch of songs all of which can stand on their own removed from the saga.

There’s some rump-shaking rock (“Bring it On Back”), taut slow blues (“Blues Prisoner”), Stax styled Southern soul (“You to Hold On To,” “I Wanna Go Back Home”), Delaney & Bonnie gospel-infused rollicking (soul singer Terri Odabi is a welcome duet partner on the Leon Russell inflected “Child Don’t Go”) and even sizzling James Brown funk (“Hustle” is a straight rip of Brown’s “Soul Power”). Few will mind the borrowing of established grooves such as “I Got Burned”’s lifting of  “Riot in Cell Block #9”’s melody, the Chuck Berry/Rolling Stones licks of “I Caught a Break” and a nod to Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” riff for “Women, Drugs and Alcohol.”

Kudos to Castro and Hambridge for expanding the standard blues template on this challenging concept even if he left his Painkillers touring band behind for the majority of the occasion. The frontman sounds inspired, the playing is rugged, and even if the lyrics verge on basic, Castro’s sheer enthusiasm makes this a highlight of his bulging catalog.

We’ll see if Bonamassa can do something as impressive.  

          

Photo by Victoria Smith

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