Release date: October 8, 2021
By Greg Easterling
San Francisco Bay area blues-rock mainstay Tommy Castro is blazing a new trail in blues recordings with his latest Alligator Records release, A Bluesman Came To Town: A Blues Odyssey. After six albums for Alligator since 2009 and earlier records for other labels, Castro is not content to rest on his Blues Music Award winning laurels. His previous Alligator release was Killin' It-Live, a break in a series of studio releases. Castro's latest is a theme album, not typical in the world of blues. As Tommy tells it in the album's liner notes,”A Bluesman Came To Town is the story of a young man from small town. One day a guitar playing bluesman comes to town. From that point on, the young man's life will never be the same.” Castro is quick to point out that the story is not necessarily his own but influenced by the things he's seen. The songs, which were written by Castro with noted blues producer-drummer Tom Hambridge and several other collaborators, can stand alone, but together they take the listener on a journey.
The album leads off with “Somewhere,” the mid-tempo opening track that will be reprised later. As Tommy sings, “In the middle of nowhere a young man listens to the night.” There's nothing much going on there geographically, a lonely musical scenario punctuated by the bluesy harp of ex-Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall expresses the sentiment. Hall hangs around to provide backing vocals on the album's next song, the title track, “A Bluesman Came To Town”. It's a pivotal moment in the story when the young man and future blues hero goes to a local roadhouse to hear the blues for the very first time. “Music filled his soul ever since that day” and Castro supplies a soulful guitar solo to match the moment.
The young man decides to seek his musical dreams in the big city and on the road, but before he leaves he must listen to a mother's plea for him not to go “into this wicked world all alone”. “Child Don't Go” gives voice to this time in the story in a very rockin' way musically with a memorable solo from keyboardist Mike Emerson. Vocalist Terrie Odabi plays the role of the mother, who sings, “Take that guitar off your back, get your suitcase all unpacked” in her duet with Castro.
Delayed remorse, over leaving both his home and a special someone behind, catches up with the young man in the album's fourth track, “You To Hold On To.” Tommy's vocals and an especially lyrical guitar solo reflect this lonely time as the protagonist laments “so many bridges I've burned.” That sad feeling is quickly erased by the next song which is simply entitled “Hustle.” It's an extremely funky workout worthy of Bay Area R&B masters Tower of Power and their tasty contributions to records by Santana and The Doobie Brothers. Just try not to nod your head or pat your feet to his one. Keith Crossan supplies the saxes and horn arrangements that are so effective.
“I Got Burned” gives voice to an all too common plight of many musicians at one time or another. Getting ripped off or not getting paid is the subject and is a hard lesson for the aspiring musician in this story. Castro turns in another noteworthy performance here.
The next track, “Blues Prisoner” is one of the album's most powerful and bears a slight resemblance to the Fenton Robinson classic, “Loan Me A Dime” popularized by Boz Scaggs and Duane Allman. It's also one of the emotional high points of the album as the young blues musician concedes his attachment to the genre: “Somebody lock me up and throw away the key!” It also inspires another killer solo by Castro. “Yes I'm a prisoner but I don't wear no prison clothes,” sings Tommy, “I'm just a prisoner of the blues and I believe I'll die here all alone”.
Compare that with the next track, “I Caught A Break,” the album's most exultant song. After a hard road, our aspiring blues hero finally scores a hit recording! The band provides bluesy rock 'n roll to match the mood as Castro notes, “I got a lot of new friends I never knew” and “Now there's a line at the door.” It's the kind of joy that any musician feels when their hard work finally pays off with a commercially successful recording that attracts more than just a handful of fans. But with success often comes the predictable temptations described in the following song, “Women, Drugs, and Alcohol.” Castro delivers an intense solo to reflect a lifestyle spiraling out of control. “Pills to make me sleep, pills to wake me up,” rues Tommy as his main character encounters the pitfalls of his newfound fame.
Then it's time to “Draw The Line” as our blues hero realizes that things must change. Anchored by the crack rhythm section of Tommy McDonald on bass and producer Tom Hambridge on drums, keyboardist Mike Emerson returns for another round. As our protagonist strives to correct the course his life has taken, there's still hope that “it's going to work this time”.
After so much time expended and a taste of success, there is the perhaps inevitable feeling expressed in “I Want To Go Back Home” to find the family and special person he left behind. “Got a ring in my pocket” sings Castro, “I want to see my girl if she'll still see me.” Guest Deanna Bogart provides the saxes and horn arrangement here. That feeling is reinforced in the next song, “Bring It Back” with a compelling Castro guitar solo and the lyrical confirmation, “All I want to do is bring it back to you.” A Bluesman Came To Town concludes with a shorter reprise of the album's opening track, “Somewhere,” a satisfying way musically to bring this blues odyssey to its conclusion.
Castro is supported on this album instrumentally by producer Tom Hambridge on drums, Rob McNelly on guitar, Tommy McDonald on bass and Kevin McKendree on keyboards. They are augmented by members of Castro's road band, The Painkillers, bassist Randy McDonald, drummer Bowen Brown, and keyboardist Mike Emerson who have backed him on his last three Alligator recordings. The album was recorded and mastered in Nashville with additional recording in San Jose, Mill Valley and Clearlake Park in California.
With A Bluesman Came To Town, Tommy Castro has expanded the definition of what a blues record can be, with a common theme linking the tracks together. It's a timeless tale that has never been told in quite this manner. Kudos to Castro (with the approval of Alligator's boss Bruce Iglauer) for this innovative approach to a most time-honored musical tradition, the blues.
For info or to buy the music: https://www.tommycastro.com/
About the Author: Greg Easterling is a veteran Chicago radio air personality and media member of the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. He is the host of American Backroads on WDCB, 90.9 FM in the Chicago area, Thursday nights at 9 p.m. He also hosts the Easterling Experience online or by app at WCCR.US. from 7 p.m.-12 mid, M-F.