Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
& THE PAINKILLERS
& THE PAINKILLERS
Method to My Madness
by Liz Mandeville
Method to My Madness, Tommy Castro’s latest CD, (his fourth for Alligator Records) is his second with the newly stripped down Pain Killers, his touring band. Michael Emerson, (keys) Randy McDonald, (bass and background vocals) and Bowen Brown, (drums and background vocals) all turn in spirited performances enhanced with tight, succinct background vocals. But the star at center stage throughout the CD is Castro, belting all songs with equal conviction and playing some of the best guitar of his career to date.
With a cover that looks like a throwback to a ‘60s era Fillmore West poster, the photo of Castro, who is usually pictured looking very GQ, has been graphicized to high saturation. He’s floating atop a blue finger print looking like a madman with a guitar in his hand. I load the disc in the machine wondering if I’m going on a psychedelic trip into yesterdayland.
A hard driving blues-rocker kicks it off with the anthemic “Common Ground,” imploring the listener to “stand together on common ground” with a message of dire warning from a worried man: Unite on common ground or face the consequences!
He continues the plea for safe harbor in a “dangerous world” on the bayou-influenced “Shine A Light.” Although his guitar is smooth as caramel, his vocals are on overdrive sounding almost like he had the mic inside his mouth! (Wonder if he was going for the sound you get when a singer vocalizes through a harp mic? Could be he was experimenting as this is his first go at producing himself). The rock blasts on in the title track “Method to My Madness” which boasts a conversationally bluesy guitar solo.
“Died and Gone to Heaven” is a ballad in the old Memphis soul shouter vein. Castro gives it the same all-balls-to-the-wall vocal approach he uses on his rockers. This is not a tender love song, this is a proclamation!
There’s more rock on “Got A Lot,” but “No Such Luck” has a really interesting, dark groove. The song boasts an arresting and unexpected arrangement with stops, story lyrics, a smoky guitar solo and a hooky chorus that begs one to sing along. Some of the strongest work from the band is on the vamp where Castro bemoans his bad luck while the swampy drums play tag with the keys that answer Castro’s riffing vocal. I’m wondering if there was a Los Lobos CD in the van’s player on the last tour, as I’m hearing that lovely, dark flavor I love so much from that group -- not that he’s copied so much as assimilated that flavor to his vast palate.
“Two Hearts” is my favorite kind of big fat blues groove. A nice shuffle that’s not in a hurry, the CD feels as if it hits its stride with this tune. “Two Hearts are better than one. I’m gonna be with you baby when my day is done. You can break my heart, break it wide open, that’s all right hearts were meant to be broken,” sings a convicted Castro. And we believe him!
“I’m Qualified” is a veritable Stax soul shouter song. I could hear Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding singing this song, set over the old “Tramp” groove and boosted by a wide swath of B-3, a nice break from all the guitar solos.
The atmosphere is so dark and moody on “Ride,” I’m almost transported to the Whisky A-Go-Go for a late ‘60s Doors concert. It’s the spooky guitar coupled with a gentle rain of electric piano. I’m digging the minor solo and hint of tremolo on the guitar played over a heavily gated, reverb/delay enhanced drum beat that drives the song like a ghost engineer -- nice producing, Mr. Castro! The characters in this song are the dirty night people who inhabit Tom Waits’ best material. This is my favorite track on the disc; I had to play it twice to get the full treatment, it’s like listening to a noir film.
Can you say slow blues? “Lose Lose” is blues so slow and deep, I think Castro was channeling Albert Collins. Some of his best work on this disc, the call and response vocal and guitar, tells the old story of love gone wrong, broken vows and betrayal. “You had another man; yes there was other women too. We did each other wrong and I call that lose lose.” If that ain’t the blues, honey, then this ain’t Chicago. This is my favorite guitar solo on Method, too -- not speed, not fireworks, just feeling and soul.
“All About the Cash” takes another turn in the bayou. I think the work with Tab Benoit has had a great effect on TC; there’s a flavor to his music now that isn’t quite New Orleans but has some cayenne pepper to it. Castro is not shy about making social commentary. His previous CDs have contained some pretty emphatic statements. Here is another lament about the state of our world, a blues version of the statement: “It’s all about the Benjamins!” A suitably angry guitar solo is cushioned by a swath of B-3 and staccato rhythm that puts a period on this statement.
The CD ends with another fat bottomed shuffle, “Bad Luck,” that showcases the stinging guitar and anguished vocals associated with deep blues. “I asked my woman for some dinner…she said I’m playing checkers daddy and I think it’s your turn to move…What can a poor boy do?” A great lyrical turn on an old lament, what can a poor boy do? Indeed!
This is not the music of a starry-eyed youth; it’s not hopeful, energetic or triumphant. This is the music of a grown man who has faced trouble, had some bad breaks, been beat up and disillusioned by a life that just ain’t fair. This is grown folks music, hard, deliberate and in your face. It has power, skill, drive and it makes no excuses for its wrinkles and gray hair. If life was fair, then Tommy Castro, who has labored all his life with the chops and skills to prove it, would be on the cover of Rolling Stone instead of a Kardashian who merely sleeps with a famous person. Not Fair. Yet he carries on, writing, refining and crafting, working to work another day. If that describes your life then you will love this album.
About the author: A true renaissance woman, Liz Mandeville is a show-stopping entertainer, singer, award-winning songwriter, guitarist, washboard player, journalist, painter, educator and all around bon vivant. She has performed all over the world and has four CDs on the Earwig Music label to her credit. She started her own label, Blue Kitty Music, and has two critically acclaimed original CDs on that imprint.