Editor’s note: Tommy Castro and the Painkillers appear at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe on Saturday, Dec. 20. For more than 20 years, Castro has included a horn section to present blues with a heavy emphasis on soul. However, the new version of Castro’s band the Painkillers is rock based and doesn’t include horns. Below are excerpts of Castro’s interview in early 2014 with Tahoe Onstage Editor Tim Parsons during the time of the release of “The Devil You Know” PURCHASE on Alligator Records. The following review by Parsons first appeared in Blues Music Magazine.
Q: Why did you change your style?
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. This has a grittier, more guitar-driven sound.
Q: How did that change the song-building process?
Castro: 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 went 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.
Q: While this album is quite a bit different from earlier records, I would say each of them have unique qualities.
Castro: Every time out we did something different and the longer you do it, do something different, it gets a little harder to find. How do I be different and be true to who I am as an artist and a person? That was the challenge. I accomplished that by working with really good people. They understood what I was trying to do. So, namely, Bonnie Hayes, as the project progressed, it became sort of co-producing, then she had to leave. She had to move to Boston and it took her out of the hands on the position of producing the album but we had already done all the ground work. The songwriting and arrangement of all the songs was all done. So at that point, it was a matter of getting a few guest artists I wanted to get involved and then mixing. The sound of the album, of course, came together in the mix. I sought out guy more modern sounding mixes. I’ve been digging records by Gary Clark Jr., the White Stripes and the Black Keys and a whole bunch of artists who are not known.
Q: To me, the first song opens like a hot rod firing up and it sets the tone for the album.
Castro: It started out like a country blues, almost. Bonnie got involved and really helped to shape the song. With the riff I came up with, I thought it might be a more Hill Country type of thing. It got heavier with the band. I thought, “It still needs 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 there. Try to imagine that song without all that now and it just wouldn’t be as exciting.
Q: My favorite song is “Two Steps Forward,” which includes the lyrics, “Take two steps forward and one step back. Gotta keep moving.”
Castro: 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. … 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 with this album. The goal all along was to make a new sound with a new band, and go to the next phase of my career kicking ass.
Q: You certainly have kicked ass your entire career. But in our interviews over the years, you have been a bit self-deprecating about your guitar playing. But it sounds good to me.
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. I am not where I want to be yet, but I’ve made some progress.
Q: You haven’t been to Tahoe since that outdoor show at Kirkwood when you played in a T-shirt and it felt cold enough to snow. When will you come back?
Castro: Before the year is out, well get up there.
‘The Devil You Know’
When a second electric guitar rumbles over a twangy amplified riff on the opening song and title track of “The Devil You Know,” it sounds like a driver cranking up a muscle car.
That driver is Tommy Castro boldly introducing a rebuilt sound. For the first time since his solo recording career began in 1991, Castro made a record without a horn section. The songs are not only more guitar driven, they have plenty of beats not heard on his previous albums.
Not content to rely on his soulful voice and high-energy performances, Castro throughout his career has worked hard to better himself on guitar. After winning his second B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award in 2010, Castro perhaps felt he gone as far as he could with his winning formula. He streamlined his band and changed direction toward a more rock and roll style. The follow up to his 2009 Alligator Records’ debut “Hard Believer” may have taken longer to make than expected, but it was worth the wait. “The Devil You Know” will make listeners smile.
Castro was assisted again with esteemed producer and songwriter Bonnie Hayes. He also had plenty of help from his friends from the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, Tab Benoit, Marcia Ball, Samantha Fish, Magic Dick and Mike Finnigan. There also were vocal contributions from the Holmes Brothers and Tasha Taylor, Johnny’s daughter. Joe Bonamassa joins the party with lead guitar on the track “I’m Tired.” Bay Area guitarist Mark Karan also pitches in on two songs, including the album’s one cover, “Keep On Smiling,” recorded 40 years ago by Wet Willie. The celebratory vocals on that track, along with several others, reveal how much fun Castro had making the record.
An album highlight is “Two Steps Forward,” a call and response with Castro’s vocals and his guitar and Magic Dick’s harmonica. Castro penned the storyline doubtless about himself. He’s constantly advancing but sometimes gets knocked back. Perhaps there’s some criticism on the road in 2012 from fans accustomed to a horn section.
“The Devil You Know” proves Castro hasn’t lost his soul, he’s just gained a whole lot of rock and roll. Expect that muscle car to roll into Memphis to pick up some more blues hardware.