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Tommy Castro and the Painkillers, StageOne, Fairfield, CT – 3/22

Photo by Michel Verlinden

Unusually warm March weather must have reminded Tommy Castro of his home in California and his show recalled another Californian with a knack for channeling Southern soul and Delta blues – John Fogerty. Foregoing the horn section this time around, he led a crackling, stripped down band that added plenty of grit and the boss keeps this version of the Painkillers on their toes by regularly switching around the set list.

Castro is a good singer and a top notch musician, but what sets him apart from the pack is the ability to lift any number of styles from his kit bag and let fly. A veteran of the blues boom of the 1980s, he has developed a supple style that roams the blues-rock spectrum and on songs like “Love Don’t Care” and “Shakin’ The Hard Times Loose”, a voice that brings to mind Delbert McClinton and the late Willy DeVille. Elsewhere the blue-collar groove of “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”, the title track from his 1997 release, came across much coarser in the club setting. Castro talked of his youth learning songs by listening to records, so we got a trawl through his collection – Howlin’ Wolf’s “44 Blues”, Buddy Guy’s “Let Me Love You Baby” and a loose take on Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Another highlight came in one of the newer tunes, “Monkey’s Paradise” where the guitar work comes to the fore, with speedy chord changes and a rambunctious rhythm. It’s from Hard Believer, his most recent studio record on Alligator, a label that should be a good fit for him; while the rocking soul of “Old Habits Die Hard” dates from his long ago stint with The Dynatones. Later, ten minutes of John Lee Hooker’s “Serves Me Right To Suffer” at full gallop closed the first set and Byron Cage’s jackhammer drumming saw his sticks splintering, a version that would’ve met with the approval of the Boogie Man himself.

While Holland-Dozier’s “Chairman of the Board” came out four decades ago, Castro’s take on it is a breath of fresh air, but with a familiar scent. Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” had Mark Zaretsky from The Cobalt Rhythm Kings join the stage to play harp, a nice accent. Many in the capacity crowd viewed Castro as an old pal, after a jaw-dropping solo one guy walked up onto the stage to give a high-five, which he got. After thirty-odd years on the road, it’s more than deserved.

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