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No sitting on laurels

Method to My Madness
Method to My Madness
By Tommy Castro & The Painkillers

Alligator Records: 2015


This review first appeared on Oct. 20, 2015 at AllAboutJazz.com.

Few have epitomized the workingman nature of the blues as much as Tommy Castro. A popular staple of blues festivals and cruises, and steadily in demand since he issued his debut in 1994, Castro nevertheless has always somewhat resided in the second tier of blues artists: Popular, well-liked, kept working steadily, but not considered one of the greats.

And yet, even as he heads into his 60s, the Bay Area resident keeps growing, keeps pushing – continues to show marked improvement on each album in both conceptualization and musicianship. Continues to keep redefining his own reputation.

His latest, “Method to My Madness” on Alligator Records, finds Castro stepping out of his stylistic comfort zone – out of the West Coast blues-rock roots format he has inhabited for most of his career. On his new CD, he incorporates more R&B than before, some Southern rock, a little funk, and a little boogie.

The album opens with “Common Ground,” which reminds not a little of vintage late-’70s Little Feat – thickly layered harmony vocals, Hammond-style organ; and an arrangement that has as much Philly soul as West Coast blues. (His solo also hearkens to Paul Barrere, Little Feat’s overlooked but immensely talented guitarist.)

“Shine a Light” is a psychedelic bit of swamp blues – a cross between John Fogerty and Kenny Neal. “Method to My Madness,” the fourth track, is more typical of Castro’s earlier recordings, while “Died and Gone to Heaven” is a rock ballad with a strong streak of soul running through it – and maybe Castro’s finest recorded solo to date.

Belying the muscular brand of blues he plays, Castro’s solos have always had a sophistication that belies the blues-rock vibe of his music. His guitar rig and setup might be closer to those of George Thorogood or Jimmy Vaughan, but his improvisations are closer in vision and tastefulness to, say, Fenton Robinson or Snooks Eaglin – with the kind of jazz-tinged imagination those comparisons suggest. “Died and Gone to Heaven” gives his guitar improvisation the kind of supportive framework his arrangements have not always provided; it is a near-perfect marriage of a stellar virtuoso, sympathetic arrangement, and strong material.

The musical exploration continues throughout much of the rest of the disc, from the Austin-styled Texas blues of “Two Hearts” to the John Lee Hooker-influenced “No Such Luck” (which features another stellar improvisational passage) through the shuffle of “Ride,” the funk of “All About the Cash” and the Chicago blues of “Lose Lose” (with another extended improvised riff that, combined with the others, adds up to make the case Castro is highly underrated as a blues guitarist).

“Bad Luck” and “Got a Lot” could have been on any of his previous records, and serve to remind that Castro hasn’t made some radical turn away from what has earned him a large, enthusiastic fan base - rather, he’s used that sound as the foundation for a marked expansion of his musical territory.

It is the most interesting release he’s given fans yet.