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CD review -- Tommy Castro 


Hard Believer

Alligator Records


tommy castro cd art 

 By Mark Baier


The Blues is an art form with musical influence that belies its infrequent emergence in the mainstream. There are only a handful of artists that can be genuinely characterized as Blues that achieve the acclaim, respect and rewards that come with widespread appeal. Those that do acquire it may look and sound as different as Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but there is one common ingredient for all of them -- the main stage performance. Only the biggest, boldest and talented of entertainers have the ability to turn the impersonal nature of the main stage into an intimate and successful personal connection. With Hard Believer, his first release on the premiere blues imprint, Alligator Records, Tommy Castro makes a strong case that he is an artist of that caliber, proving that he has the musical chops, the energy, charisma and gravitas to captivate audiences and cross boundaries, while preaching the blues to congregations of new fans.


The tracks on Hard Believer are filled with passionate and steady grooves, and it kicks off with “Definition of Insanity”, an up-tempo tale of a relationship burning too hot. “We go together like fire and gasoline,” he warns.  The opening song’s rich horn arrangements and limber guitar figures provide the pulse while Castro delivers a gritty, soulful vocal telling a cautionary narrative on the topic of Love. The tight, crisp horn arrangements from Keith Crossan (tenor, baritone sax) and Tom Poole (trumpet, flugelhorn, valve trombone) weave throughout the mix like silk; the versatile duo’s fine work is featured prominently on Hard Believer. Rather than being a distraction, they are ,instead, perfectly integrated into the arrangements, providing balance and counterpoint that easily could’ve been overwhelming in less able hands (and ears!).


The next song, “It Is What It Is,” an up-tempo number with slashing interplay between Castro and his band, will shake the boogie out of even the most reserved listener. A solid, confident rocker, ‘It Is What It Is’ was co-written by Tommy’s close friend, the late Stephen Bruton, and the song captures Bruton’s assertive and stylish signature sound beautifully. The CD’s title song, “Hard Believer,” brings a slow, soulful vibe to the party while mining a mellow Memphis sound that Castro revisits throughout the CD. The tasteful and almost effortless integration of the horns contributes mightily to the listening experience on Hard Believer, and “Monkey’s Paradise” finds Castro and the band hitting full stride, pumping out an energetic number that’s equal parts Johnnie Taylor and Robert Palmer. Urbane and sophisticated, “Monkey’s Paradise” rollicks and swings with the infectious keyboards of Tony Stead, the bouncing bass and drum lines of Scot Sutherland and Ronnie Smith providing the octane. It’s an absorbing and captivating track, one that helps establish Castro as an artist at the pinnacle of his craft.


 On “Ninety-Nine and One Half” he revisits Wilson Pickett’s 1966 chestnut, locking into the original’s deep, funky soul rhythms effortlessly. Castro’s emotive vocal reading fondly telegraphs Pickett, while his fiery guitar shows him to be a facile string stretcher, evoking early Jimi Hendrix and Steve Cropper in one tune!  No small feat on that. Next on the platter is “Back up Plan”, with a clever lyric and easy beat that’s familiar and true blue. Co-writing credit on this one goes to Rick Estrin, widely regarded as the top Blues composer of his generation. Next, Castro takes on Bob Dylan’s proselytizing epic, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” giving it a forward, bouncing backbeat, with Crossan’s and Poole’s horns massaging the mix comfortably. “Trimmin’ Fat” is a sarcastic rocker, with a Texas roadhouse arrangement a’ la Delbert McClinton, that satisfies like an ice cold Lone Star on a hot day. In between the lyrical angst of unemployment, Castro and the band lay it out with a groove that’s impossible to sit still to. “Fat” is quite irresistible and greasy, featuring rhythm guitarist John Porter on some of the finest slide guitar this side of Ry Cooder. “Make It Back To Memphis” is a finger-popping Blues-Rock number that will shake the most hardened Beale Street denizens to their soul. MIBTM seems like a natural encore song, one that will have audiences singing along like it’s a weekend May.  The band’s well-done covers of “Victims of the Darkness” (penned by Allen Toussaint) and The Righteous Brothers’ “My Babe” are both Stax inspired, soul-blues workouts that reveal deft arrangements and compelling counterpoint lines of the highest quality.


Instrumentally, the musicianship on Hard Believer is faultless; this is a disciplined band, rich in talent, tones and textures. The core group is rounded out by percussionist Lennie Castro, rhythm guitarist Tal Morris and background vocalist Amber Morris, making this a 10-piece band, one that could easily overpower the listener and drown-out the vocals in a cacophony of competing instruments.  Yet this is never a worry as Castro and producer John Porter have created a CD that provides this generous ensemble with carefully crafted arrangements and wide space in the mix. The result is a realistic and three-dimensional recording. The final track on Hard Believer is the only one that seems a little out of place. “The Trouble With Soul” is a soft, jazzy number (written by L.A. native Jeff Turmes -- check him out) with Castro’s and Morris’ guitars weaving a breezy, moody L.A. cool jazz-blues feel in conjunction with Stead’s bell-like stabs at the Rhodes keyboards. It gives the feel of an informal cocktail club at 1 a.m., and while it’s a great little song, it doesn’t have the same larger-than-life presence as the rest of the disc.


In Hard Believer, Castro has crafted a CD that reveals him to be an entertainer of the highest calibre. From the first cut to the last, it is a sonic testament writ large from the main stage, and that is a place where Tommy Castro clearly belongs.





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