The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue Live!
by Hal Horowitz
A direct descendant from the traveling bundled artist packages of the ’60s right down to its retro “hatch show”-styled cover art, Tommy Castro and his band play host to a relatively diverse assortment of high-energy blues and soul acts. The concept originated on the yearly Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise where such musical collaborations are typical. Castro’s concept was to take that concept on the road, resulting in this dozen-track live album cherrypicked from various tour stops. It’s a rollicking, very plugged-in affair, perhaps not surprisingly geared toward some of Castro’s current crop of Alligator labelmates such as Janiva Magness, guitarist Michael Burks, and ex-Little Charlie & the Nightcats frontman-gone-solo Rick Estrin. Still, a handful of non-Alligator names like Debbie Davies, Joe Louis Walker, and “Sista” Monica Parker also appear. The varied collective features youngsters Trampled Underfoot as well as lesser-known veteran Theodis Ealey, both of whom handily hold their own next to the more popular participants. Castro takes lead vocals on four tracks, and he, along with his horn-enhanced band, provide backup for the majority of the other artists. Everyone is at the top of their game with an electricity and vein-popping excitement that can only be generated when musicians feed off each other live. Castro in particular seems to relish his master of ceremonies role, charging through a soulful version of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and a sizzling “Serves Me Right to Suffer.” The latter suddenly shifts tempos from a cracking slow blues to a driving “Radar Love” boogie beat and displays his sometimes underappreciated guitar skills. Most impressive, and rather unexpected, is the number of females in the lineup, a refreshing change from the typically male-dominated blues field. Not only do guitarist Davies and vocalist Magness turn in some thrilling performances (Magness on a tough, horn-punched, swampily rearranged version of James Brown’s “Think”), but Monica Parker’s slow blues boils, and Trampled Underfoot’s bass-playing lead singer Danielle Schnebelen’s sexy/angry vocals will have you checking the liner notes to see who this newcomer is. Estrin adds both humor and harp to the generally guitar-oriented lineup with “My Next Ex-Wife,” and Michael Burks’ ten-minute grinding blues “Voodoo Spell” will make an instant believer of anyone who might not be familiar with his slashing guitar attack. The disc moves from one highlight to the next with the primary detriment being that it’s not a double CD to provide more of what’s here. Perhaps volume two is in order.
Tommy Castro has a problem: he’s the victim of his own success. As problems go, it’s probably not a bad place to be, but the question remains. Just how do you top yourself when your last album won a coveted Blues Music Award as “Contemporary Blues Album of the Year” and you walked off with the “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” Award as Castro did in 2008?
Tommy Castro’s Hard Believer
To say that Castro succeeded in his goals for Hard Believer would be an understatement. The album is a white-hot collection of spirited, unpretentious performances, each song approached by Castro and his flamethrower band with the ferocity of a hungry heavyweight-class prizefighter. Given the energy and passion imbued in these songs by everybody involved, it’s clear that Castro and the boys feel that they still have something to prove, and rather than rest on their considerable laurels, they’ve delivered another standard-setting musical masterpiece.
Blues, Soul & Rock ‘n’ Roll
Just as Castro promised, Hard Believer is an inspired collection of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, and what’s surprising here isn’t that they’ve managed to find a way to top the sound and fury of Painkiller, but that they – Castro and his incredible band, again working with noted producer John Porter – make it seem so effortless, so casual that they can perfectly replicate not only the sound, but the lifeforce of the styles they inhabit as easily as pulling on a favorite t-shirt. “Definition of Insanity,” for instance, is a funky throwback to the 1970s with a slinky groove, blasts of silky hornplay, Castro’s gruff-but-soulful vocals, and a bit of clever lyrical wordplay.
The title track is a burning ember of soul worthy of Otis Redding, the band delivering a deep groove while Castro’s vocals sound like a cross between Otis and Frankie Miller. A cover of the Wilson Pickett/Eddie Floyd R&B rave-up “Ninety-Nine And One Half” is spot-on Memphis soul served up with a side o’ greens, while Castro’s spry take on Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” is both reverential and possessed by a higher power. Castro’s originals are particularly strong this time out, “Trimmin’ Fat” is a funny story-song with a swaggering attitude and Castro’s scorching fretwork and “Make It Back To Memphis” is a rollicking honky-tonk barn-burner with a rockabilly heart and oodles of blue-eyed soul. Somewhere up above, Charlie Feathers is smiling….
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
Tommy Castro isn’t a pure bluesman, but you’ll hear the spirit of pure blues in the raucous musical hybrid that has become his trademark sound. There’s plenty to love on Hard Believer, from the band’s energetic and lively performances, to Castro’s inspired choice of cover tunes and his own considerable original songs.
As deep as the muddy Mississippi and as wide as the entire United States, Hard Believer is a big-hearted celebration of American music, and from blues and soul to R&B and rock, Castro and his band of merry fellow travelers kick out the jams with a joy and affection that is downright infectious.
Washington Post Review
Tommy Castro’s “Hard Believer” marks a debut of sorts. The veteran roadhouse-blues rocker is recording for a different label these days, Alligator, with the help of producer John Porter, whose extensive credits include collaborations with the diverse likes of Buddy Guy and Elvis Costello.
Still, anyone who has enjoyed Castro’s recordings over the years will find “Hard Believer” reassuringly familiar. Here’s a blues musician who clearly knows his strengths and how to capitalize on them. A soul vocalist who occasionally brings to mind Delbert McClinton, Castro wouldn’t have any trouble fronting a top-notch band without ever playing a note, yet his guitar work and songwriting are equally impressive. Prime example: “Definition of Insanity” concerns a mutually destructive relationship, and the mounting tension eventually ignites a Santana-esque guitar solo. Not all the songs are originals. Among the tunes soulfully covered by Castro are Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and Allen Toussaint’s “Victims of the Darkness.” Castro also has a way with the lighter side of the blues, as evidenced by the album’s all-too-topical, recession-inspired novelty, “Trimmin’ Fat.”
No, there’s nothing here that will shake the faith of Castro’s longtime hard believers.
— Mike Joyce
Review from Blueswax
Blueswax Rating: 8
Reader Rating: 9
Strong New Material, and (mostly) Good Covers too, (09/17/09)
Tommy Castro’s debut for Alligator Hard Believer produced by John Porter (B.B. King, Elvis Costello, Buddy Guy, Keb Mo, The Smiths, Otis Rush, Billy Bragg, Roxy Music) was recorded in Castro’s hometown of San Rafael, California. The album’s focus is mostly about Castro’s soul, fueled by his vocals and powerful and at times over the top guitar work, sensational charts by reedman Keith Crossan and trumpeter/bone player Tom Poole, and those oh so wonderful peculating grooves.
From the opening “Definition of Insanity” it’s apparent this could be the beginning of a different era for Tommy, as heembraces his Bay Area funk affinity-groove. His guitar work has that Santana emotion. Additionally on this track, note the powerful horn charts which are explosive. The recently departed Stephen Bruton co-authored “It Is What It Is” which works extremely well for Castro’s vocals and band. This is a solid Blues burner. Castro’s “Monkey Paradise” is definitely destined to be a crowd pleaser at TCB gigs. Tommy’s really on his “triple-treat” game here with his vocals, guitar, and funky songwriting skills. But Eddie Floyd/S.Cropper/W.Pickett’s “Ninety-Nine And a Half,” and Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” should also work well in live performance, but they are too often covered and Castro’s versions are somewhat mundane. Conversely; unearthing Allen Toussaint’s “Victims Of The Darkness” is ultra hip as are the heady horn arrangements by Crossan and Poole. So is Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley’s (The Righteous Brothers) “My Babe,” another gem that Castro and his band serve up in rip-roaring fashion. Fellow West Coast bassist and guitarist Jeff Turmes (recently seen with Rick Holmstrom and Stephen Hodges in Mavis Staples band,) smartly closes this heady disc with “The Trouble With Soul,” which is a breezy-jazzy-soul affair, that works particularly well for Castro. His vocal range is superb and is something I look forward to hearing more of from Tommy. Note Castro’s guitar chops on this left coast Turmes tune, too. By the way, “The Trouble With Soul” deserves to be an instant classic, as it is one cool tune.
New label and some new gel from minor lineup changes in the TCB band are working well on Hard Believer, so much so I feel that the future will continue to burn bright for Castro. Expect major airplay and perhaps some crossover radio play as this disc is a sumptuous mix of (most, but not all) covers, and the increasingly strong songwriting, guitar playing and vocals from Tommy Castro, and his very fine band.
Bob Putignano a senior contributing editor at BluesWax. He is also the heart of Sounds of Blues at www.SoundsofBlue.com. Bob maybe contacted at email@example.com.
Review from Blurt
Tommy Castro’s first release for the Alligator label might just be the best yet from this veteran Bay Area blues artist. Castro has long been known for his mixture of blues, soul and rock. His world-wide touring earned him a 2008 Blues Music Award as Entertainer of the Year. But Hard Believer showcases Castro’s soulful voice, searing guitar and excellent song writing ability as it reaches new heights. Castro pays homage on this CD to the Memphis sound while not being afraid to update it for a new century.
Listen to the title cut, close your eyes and you will be convinced that you are listening to Otis Redding singing in 1967. “Hard Believer” is one of the greatest songs Castro has ever written, which is saying something. Castro’s plaintiff, soul dripping vocals display not only the influence of Otis but other blues/soul legends like Ray Charles, Delbert McClinton and Wilson Pickett. Castro even does an excellent job of covering one of the Wicket Pickett’s songs on this album: “Ninety-Nine and One Half.”
Soul music was not just great emotional singing, however. Where would Stax Records be without the horn section? And Hard Believer is filled with tremendous horn work from Keith Crossan and Tom Poole. And just as with the legends of soul, Castro knows how to use the horns as perfect counterpoint to the vocals, not so much as a “call and response” of classic gospel/blues, but as a way of underlining the feeling of the song. The horns fill the spaces within the songs and grab at your heart.
Another classic element of soul music was that at a time of political turmoil when American cities burned each long hot summer, the Memphis sound was a sound of hope. On “Hard Believer” Castro sings, “Lost my faith in miracles, but here I go believing again.” This is songwriting that fits today’s world.
But Castro is not just a great soul singer, he is also a great guitarist. And on songs like the up-tempo “Definition of Insanity” and the rock/shuffle “It is what it is”, Castro gets a chance to display his guitar. Another standout track here is “Trimmin’ Fat”. Castro shows an ability to update soul with his blistering slide which comes right out of the blues/rock idiom. His writing addresses the systematic destruction of American jobs that had taken place in recent years. This is not a nostalgia trip album. Castro sings, “They do your job in China for 100 bucks a day. You better come down and get your last week’s pay. Now I did not lose my job. I know where it’s at. Everybody’s trimmin’ fat.” This is timely topical blues for the first decade of the 21st century. The song fades out with Castro asking, “What about my 401 K? How ‘bout that boss man? We could give him a little less money and that would make a nice big job for me.” Tell that to the banksters and crooks at Citibank and Goldman Sachs. Castro probably won’t be invited to play that protest song at any well paying corporate gigs.
Castro wrote six of the 12 tracks on Hard Believer. Besides the Pickett cover, he also includes covers of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” as well as a brilliant fast-paced Alan Toussaint song, “Victims of the Darkness,” and “My Babe” by the Righteous Brothers. The production here is excellent and the sound is lush. The album was produced by John Porter, who has worked with artists including Elvis Costello, Roxy Music, B.B. King and Keb Mo.
After 20 years as a solo artist and 13 albums, Tommy Castro is just hitting his stride. He is one of the greatest blues guitarists, songwriters and entertainers in the world today. Hard Believer shows us why and gives a hint of the great work he is about to produce with Alligator.
Standout Tracks: “Hard Believer” “Trimmin’ Fat” “Backup Plan”