Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
TOMMY CASTRO & THE PAIN KILLERS
The Devil You Know
by Liz Mandeville
The Devil You Know is a dark and brooding collection of thirteen guitar and organ driven songs, nine of which were written by Tommy Castro. These tunes, even though they were assembled by a guy from Southern California, all sound as though they were soaked in bayou swamp water, gnawed on by an alligator and strained through a summer night in Louisiana before being committed to a steel plate to be played on the sound system in Billy Gibbons Cadillac
Versatile, multi-talented Castro also co-produced this disc with Bonnie Hayes. (Hayes also adds piano and back-ground vocals to the second track.) Guitarist/singer/songwriter and bandleader, Castro is famous for his Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revues on the illustrious blues cruise ships both at sea and on land. Ever the jam leader, Castro drafted some of the most popular recording artists of the current blues epoch, backed them with his stellar big band and successfully toured the shows, even at the height of the recession. That sound business idea resulted in a live CD and cemented his relationship with the Chicago based Alligator Records. Devil is his third Alligator effort, billed as a stripped down return to the barrelhouse style with his new group The Pain Killers -- a hard driving four-guys-with-a-mission blues band. It is, in fact, an extremely layered, tour-de-force that features a theater full of special guests.
The title track comes roaring out of the speakers sounding fat and swampy. Slide guitars dominate the hard, testosterone fueled rhythm -- this is not your daddy’s twelve bar blues record. The blast of wind from the South is swiftly followed by “Second Mind” which starts with a retro sounding Farfisa style organ part. The disc is peppered with special guests who temper and enhance Castro’s own considerable talents. Guitarist Joe Bonamassa makes his guest appearance on the third track, “I’m Tired,” whereby he takes the tune by its short hairs and propels it into a rock dimension.
“Center of Attention” has a snappy second line drum feel and a clever lyric and vocal phrasing reminiscent of Jack White or the Strokes. Indeed, this ain’t no twelve bar blues record; the music is solidly in this century.
Covering J.B.Lenoir’s “The Whale Have Swallowed Me,” Castro shares vocal duties with Tasha Taylor (daughter of Johnnie Taylor) who turns in a warm and approachable vocal performance. Other highlights of this tune are James Pace’s lyrical piano solo (like mint in the julep, exactly right for the part) and Castro’s generous dollop of slide guitar.
“When I Cross the Mississippi,” a duet with Tommy Castro and Tab Benoit, feels like long separated brothers have finally reunited and it sounds so good. Their voices and guitars blend so seamlessly and leave you feeling their love of the rich, fertile delta. I’d love to hear these two collaborate on a disc and tour it. Of course if these two handsome bluesmen toured there would be crowds of salivating blues women selling out every venue. It’s a thought. I love the unaltered, raw abandon of Byron Cages’ drum part which brings an unquenchable energy to this love song to ole muddy.
Marcia Ball brings her considerable chops and working woman vocals to “Mojo Hannah.” I never tire of Marcia Ball no matter where she turns up and her pairing here with Castro is one of my favorites on this disc. The song has a great feel and unexpected chord changes that keep entertaining listen after listen.
Next up is “Two Steps Forward.” Famous blues harp maestro Magic Dick along with the Holmes Brothers and vocalist Vicki Randle help TC and the Pain Killers bring it on home in this gospel, call and response drone tune. When they kick into the chorus and double the tempo you just want to grab your tambourine and start testifying!
We start to get pretty funky on the morality play that is “She Wanted to Give It To Me,” a song that will be a comfort to women everywhere who wonder just how seriously their men take that sacred vow when they are out of sight (if not out of mind) as the second half of the line is “…but I didn’t take it!” It’s a very hook-y tune that shows off not only Castro’s range on guitar but his elastic and versatile voice as well.
Mike Duke is guest piano player on Wet Willie’s ‘70s radio hit, “Keep On Smiling.” He adds a great gospel feel which Tommy and the band compliment with their funky rock’ n’ blues approach. What sets this arrangement apart is Mark Karan’s guitar harmony with Castro during the solo bringing that Southern Rock, Allman Brothers flavor and adding just the right amount of moxie to bring this tune up to date.
On “Medicine Woman” Kansas City’s Blonde Bombshell of Guitar, Samantha Fish, is credited with singing a duet with TC but the slide guitar on the track sounds a lot like her playing as well. It’s a rhythmically strange track made even more so by the heavy production that adds layers of echo and reverb that obscure the lyric and make the song sound like an Electronic Dance track on serious moonshine.
Back to the basics on “That’s All I Got,” a fairly straightforward rocker of a song that features Castro singing and playing a pretty overdriven, effects heavy guitar part. You may find this ear-worming you later because of its direct lyric and hook-y chorus.
The thirteenth and final track is “Greedy.” The lyric makes you wonder if Castro is describing himself or making social commentary. I had the fortune to interview Castro after a performance at the nightclub SPACE a few years ago. My impression was that he is a very serious, thoughtful business man who is taking care of himself with a healthy lifestyle; he is indeed a blues man for the 21st century.
The Devil You Know, although appearing simple and stripped down, is actually a complex and deeply layered piece of artistry – not unlike the artist who created it. It involves the cross genre, cross generational business of music making at its highest level, greater than the sum of its many parts. Castro is a master of bringing many elements together to create a satisfying gumbo that begs second and third helpings. I see multiple BMA nominations for this well-crafted, radio friendly offering from a mature songwriter and seasoned performer.