Album review: Rebuilt Tommy Castro and the Painkillers fire on all cylinders with ‘The Devil You Know’

It’s not quite like Bob Dylan playing electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival or Miles Davis making fusion jazz on “Bitches Brew,” but Tommy Castro took a significant musical change a couple of years ago when he parted ways with his horn section. This week Castro’s new sound can be heard on a new

Tommy Castro

Photo by Lewis MacDonald

album, “The Devil You Know.” The follow-up to his 2009 Alligator Records studio debut, “Hard Believer,” took a bit longer to make than anticipated, but it was worth the wait. The 13 tracks are aggressive, guitar-driven blues, rock and soul celebrations, each featuring Castro’s joyous vocals. The amiable Castro seems to be friends with everybody, and he had plenty of assistance, especially from producer Bonnie Hayes. Narada Michael Walden also helped produce a great tune, “She Wanted To Give It To Me, and Chris Manning assisted in the mix. Joining the band the Painkillers — Randy McDonald, Byron Cage and James Pace — are an impressive group of Castro’s pals: Tab Benoit, Marcia Ball, Joe Bonamassa, Magic Dick, Samantha Fish, the Holmes Brothers, Mark Karan and Tasha Taylor. Castro, who promised to play at Lake Tahoe sometime this year, spoke with Tahoe Onstage about “The Devil You Know.”

Tahoe Onstage: The obvious difference on your new album is for the first time you do not have a horn section. It sounds more raw and gritty to me.

Tommy Castro: I was a point where I needed to do something different for myself as an artist and on a business level to stay relevant and to keep everybody interested in what we’re doing as opposed to keep doing the same thing over and over and over. I was starting to really shake things up a little bit. It has a grittier, more guitar-driven sound.

Tahoe Onstage: It looks like you were involved in writing nine of the 13 songs. Without horns, does it change your approach to writing the songs?

Tommy Castro: Yes. This was an album that really started from the drums and the rhythm. The song ideas are song ideas. That part didn’t change much. But the approach to the musical delivery of those tunes was little different. As I go over my old catalog, there was just a handful of beats that we used over and over again because I am playing traditional blues and soul music and the classic sounding rock and roll. There’s nothing really edgy about it and different about it. That was the big shift in creating the songs.

Tahoe Onstage: The first song, “The Devil You Know,” seems to set the tone of the record. The second guitar sounds like a muscle car starting up.

Tommy Castro: (Laughs) It started out like a country blues, almost. Bonnie got involved and really helped to shape the song. When I came up with the riff on acoustic guitar, I thought it might be a more Hill Country type of thing. It got heavier with band. I thought it still needed something. A big effected tone. Something way out there. I pointed Gary Clark Jr. as a reference point. He’s kind of Hendrix and he’s kind of R.L Burnside. He’s somewhere in between. I try to imagine that song without all that now and it just wouldn’t be as exciting.

Tahoe Onstage: Do you have a favorite song on the record?

Tommy Castro: Maybe “Two Steps Forward” (which includes the chorus, “I take two steps forward and one step back”). That’s life. If you’re lucky, that’s life. That’s certainly the story of my career. When I changed my direction, I knew not everybody was going to be thrilled about it. … Some people like their artists to remain the same and I can’t do it. It’s suffocating. I have to keep going forward in some way. Music is a living thing. It’s not meant to stay the same. I have to take a step back to really get this thing firing on all cylinders. And that’s what’s happened and now with this album, which was the goal all along to make a new sound with a new band, with a new sound and go to the next phase of my career kicking ass.

Tahoe Onstage: Your vocals sound like you were really having fun.

Tommy Castro: I did have fun, man. So much of it was just really fun to do. Like having Tab come in. He was playing gigs out in Mill Valley, San Francisco, right in the middle of where we were doing all our recording. He said, “Yeah, man, let me help you out.” So he comes in the studio and bang, bang, bang, it didn’t even take an hour. He sang and he played and he’d never heard that song (“When I Cross the Mississippi”) before, and he sounds so natural doing it. For me that was a blast.

Tahoe Onstage: I suspect most of the guest artists are friends you made on all of those blues cruises.

Tommy Castro:  Except Bonamassa. We were just acquaintances. If I was a kid growing up listening to guitar like I was with Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Johnny Winter. If there was a Joe Bonamassa on the scene when I was a kid, he’d be one of the guys that I’d be trying to play like. I admire his musicianship and the way he’s managed his career, putting out quality records, building his audience and taking this music all over the world and just kicking ass everywhere. I am a huge fan. He seemed to have a level of respect for me and what I do probably because he was a young kid when I was already doing this. I am not sure, but he has always been really cool to me, and really respectful.

Tahoe Onstage: Typical of a real bluesman, you have always been self-deprecating about your skill on guitar. But you have become very, very good.

Tommy Castro: I had a career going a little bit before I was ready but I wasn’t going to turn it down. I don’t think it was about guitar playing, it was about the kind of show we put on. It was a combination of the songs, the energy, the band, my voice; the fact that I could play and sing and write. All of those things helped me along and created this amazing life that I get to lead, a career in music that I feel blessed to have. All of that was going on just slightly before I felt I was up to speed as a guitar player. So the whole time, I’ve been trying to eke out time in the middle of all of it to study and get better on the guitar, and I keep doing that and keep doing that, and I have to tell you, I think I’ve made some progress. (Laughs) I am not where I want to be yet, but I’ve made some progress.

TThe Devil You Knowommy Castro and the Painkillers

‘The Devil You Know,’ Alligator Records

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About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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