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CD REVIEW -- Tommy Castro
GLT blues radio

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers

Stompin’ Ground

Alligator Records 

Tommy Castro Stompin Ground CD

By Robin Zimmerman

From barnstorming across the Midwest to Caribbean cruises and whirlwind European tours, Tommy Castro is one busy bluesman. But no matter how far he roams, Castro remains firmly rooted in the musical influences and street-wise mentality of his old neighborhood in San Jose, California.

Castro’s old ‘hood wasn’t the sun-splashed surf towns made famous by the Beach Boys. Coming of age during the late-sixties/early seventies, Castro grew up surrounded by Mexican low riders and hippie stoners. The music was equally diverse. There were soul songs blasting from the low rider’s 8-tracks while the hippie contingent favored blues, rock and Vietnam-era protest songs.

As he soaked in his neighborhood’s melting pot of music and culture, Castro developed an appreciation for a wide variety of artistic influences. He started on the guitar at the age of ten and cut his teeth on Eric Clapton, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield and others. He then moved on to a deep appreciation of blues masters like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Elmore James. Thanks to the low rider’s repertoire, Castro picked up vocal tips from the likes of Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and James Brown.  

Castro was also lucky to live near San Francisco during the golden age of clubs like the Fillmore West and Winterland. He frequently made the trek there to hone his musical skills while learning first-hand how a live performance can electrify an audience.

This combination of street smarts, musical know-how and powerful performance skills helped Castro gain a devoted following over the years. He has recorded a rich variety of well-received CDs and opened for B.B. King’s summer concert tours in 2001 and 2002. He also received the Blues Foundation “Entertainer of the Year” award in 2010. This was in addition to other honors including “Blues Male Artist of the Year.”  

Despite all these lofty achievements, Castro remains true to his roots. His latest Alligator release, Stompin’ Ground is an homage to the home turf that shaped him and the musical influences that feed his soul. Like any “neighborhood guy,” Castro has a far-ranging roster of contacts and connections he has developed over the years.

As on his 2015 release, Method to My Madness, Castro is accompanied by his stellar band, the Painkillers.  This unit is comprised of Randy McDonald on bass and background vocals, Bowen Brown on drums and tambourine and keyboardist Michael Emerson.

The list of special guest artists isn’t too shabby either. Charlie Musselwhite contributes harp and vocals on “Live Every Day” with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo coming in to play an incendiary guitar on Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes.” Danielle Nicole provides soaring vocals on Castro’s rendition of the Delaney & Bonnie classic “Soul Shake.” Mike Zito gets the call-up on “Rock Bottom” for guitar and vocal work.

Lisa Leuschner Andersen provides background vocals on several tracks while Robby Yamilov is featured on “Enough is Enough.” Martin Windstad comes on to play percussion on “Love Is.”  

Castro landed back in San Jose to record Stompin’ Ground at Alligator label mate Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios. Along with sharing production credits with Castro, Andersen’s contributions include rhythm and acoustic guitar, saxophone, bass, tambourine and background vocals on “Enough is Enough.”

The first track, “Nonchalant” was previewed on Castro’s website before the official release of Stompin’ Ground on September 29th. On this track, Castro’s soulful vocal chops are front and center as he sings about “everything I want, behind that nonchalant.” “Nonchalant” is one of the seven original songs Castro penned for Stompin’ Ground.

As evidenced by the way he seamlessly moved from group to group in his youth, Castro can’t be pigeonholed to one musical style and his voice runs the gamut from garage band rock to smooth soul. While he sounds a bit like Bob Seger on “Nonchalant,” he segues into his raucous blues cruise persona on the next two tracks entitled “Blues All Around Me” and “Fear is the Enemy.” 

Castro once had a full-time horn section but went for a more stripped-down sound when he incorporated the Painkillers in 2011. But he wisely recruited Nancy Wright on tenor sax and John Halbleib on trumpet for “Nonchalant,” “Blues All Around Me” and “My Old Neighborhood.”

Probably the most personal of all cuts on Stompin’ Ground, “My Old Neighborhood” is a nostalgic look at Castro’s past. As he “goes back in my mind to a simpler time,” he reminisces about all the characters he encountered on a daily basis. Emerson’s keyboard and the right mix of trumpet and tenor sax complement his storytelling skills.  

          Castro then moves into a shuffling “Enough is Enough,” where quick riffs and searing slide guitar work provide a dramatic contrast to Castro’s sobering social commentary—which isn’t surprising considering the hippie protest songs he heard in his formative years. But Castro doesn’t stay down for too long as the next track, “Love Is” provides a percussion-rich recap of what he counts as love.

Following this string of original tunes, Castro digs deep into his vault of musical influences with songs made famous by Elvin Bishop. Taj Mahal, Buddy Miles and Ray Charles. Whether he’s channeling Bishop in “Rock Bottom” or riffing on Miles’ “Them Changes,” Castro skillfully walks the fine line between honoring the originals but still managing to make the songs his own.

Other highlights of this cruise through favorite artists’ catalogs include a hip shaking rendition of “Soul Shake” and a rollicking ensemble effort on Ray Charles’ “Sticks and Stones.”

Stompin’ Ground closes on a reflective note with Castro’s “Live Every Day.” For this final track, he is joined by Charlie Musselwhite who is on point with both his harmonica and signature spoken word vocal delivery.

While it’s been said that “you can’t go home again,” Tommy Castro proves otherwise on Stompin’ Ground.  Through his words and music, he gives listeners a glimpse of what life was like in San Jose back in the day. Although Castro has religiously worked at perfecting his craft, his comrades from the San Jose street corners also deserve credit for their influence on Castro’s diverse list of musical favorites. Castro returns the favor with this highly listenable and multi-layered CD that draws heavily on the styles of the late sixties/early seventies scene he remembers so vividly.



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