Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tommy Castro & The Painkillers/Ronnie Baker Brooks - BB Kings, New York, 10 October 2017.

In New York on holiday last week, and what better way to spend an evening than catching Tommy Castro & The Painkillers, and Ronnie Baker Brooks, playing at BB Kings?  And an interesting way too, with two bands taking different approaches to the blues.
Tommy Castro is nominally the headliner, but with the two outfits essentially co-headlining he’s opted to come on first tonight, and opens his set with ‘Rock Bottom’, from new album Stomping Ground, which he tells us has bounded to #2 on the Billboard blues chart.
Tommy Castro - "it ain't rocket surgery"
Recorded with Mike Zito guesting, it’s a breezy shuffle decorated with some rinky-dink piano from Michael Emerson.  They follow up with the title track from 2014 album The Devil You Know, with Emerson switching to organ to back up the strutting riff.  Right away it’s clear that Randy McDonald’s booming, funky bass locks everything together to underpin Castro’s guitar and vocals.
‘Lose Lose’ is the first offering from 2015’s excellent Method To My Madness, with more great bass from McDonald and expressive vocals from Castro, but that’s just a warm-up for ‘Ride’, from the same album.  A tale of steamy nights and wild characters in North Beach, California, during Castro’s younger days, it oozes atmosphere as it drifts along on McDonald’s loping bass line. Emerson contributes rippling, spiky piano, then they wind it down and segue perfectly into Tom Petty’s ‘Breakdown’, on which Castro turns out a beautifully controlled guitar solo.  As with the later ‘Nonchalant’, from the new album, Castro’s soloing serves the song, not his ego.
Dipping way into his back catalogue, ‘Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’, from Castro’s long ago second album has some sock it to ‘em shuffling from Bowen Brown on drums.  Down the stretch highlights from the new album are to the fore with ‘Old Neighbourhood’ and ‘Blues All Around Me’.  The former is a song of nostalgia for simpler times, with a Hispanic feel and a great sense of place – and some interweaving of licks from ‘Jessica’ too, methinks.  The latter, meanwhile, is a co-write with New Yorker Johnny Ace, who looks every inch the Big Apple bohemian as he gets up to join in on vocals.
As Castro says, his material is a soup of blues, soul and rock’n’roll, a product of the San Jose environment he grew up in – the stomping ground of the album title.  As he also says, in his Cheshire Cat grinning fashion, “it ain’t rocket surgery”.  But it’s good stuff, sometimes damn good, and the commitment of guys like him to performing new material is essential to keep the blues alive.
To be honest, Ronnie Baker Brooks was just a name to me before this gig.  I had seen a few mentions of his new album Times Have Changed, but didn’t realise he was the son of veteran Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks, who died earlier this year.  Coming on with the volume cranked up and going to work on his guitar right from the first bar, his set is a rather different proposition from Castro’s.
Brooks is a big guy, with a big personality that comes over through in-yer-face, wing-ding
Ronnie Baker Brooks - let's get this party started!
guitar playing that’s backed up by his tight band, with Maurice Jones in particular giving it plenty on drums.
Willie Dixon’s ‘My Love Will Never Die’ shows off a more soulful and subtle side though, with a pulsing rhythm and pinging guitar, and is a good showcase for the easy warmth of Brooks’ voice.  He follows that with a medley of blues classics that kicks off with the heavy R’n’B of ‘Born In Chicago’, on which he really starts to demonstrate that he’s a genuine guitar honcho, before easing through ‘Catfish Blues’ and into ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’.  At this point he exercises top notch showmanship as he brings it down, before turning out a hilarious, spot on impression of what a John Lee Hooker take on the vocal would sound like. He doesn’t quite hit the bulls-eye with the following impersonation of Howlin’ Wolf, but makes up for it by bringing things to a wild conclusion.
After that he does turn to material from the new album, kicking off with the funky ‘Twine Time’, incorporating some great call and response stuff with keyboard player Daryl Coutts.  ‘Times Have Changed’ itself follows, with a very Buddy Guy feel and some nice counterpoint from waves of keys from Coutts, who also partners Brooks in a novel rap section (performed by Al Kapone on the album).  ‘Doing Too Much’ is a platform for some great riffing, as well as some smart contemporary lyrics.  A slow blues then provides a contrast, Brooks taking the volume right down low with some downright tasteful guitar before building it back up with witty soloing.
He gets Tommy Castro back to jam on ‘Let Me Love You Baby’, belts straight into ‘Honey Hush’ and then goes into a guitar impersonation of Albert Collins on which he makes his guitar talk in such a fashion that the crowd starts going nuts.  By the time they shut up shop for the night with Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillin’’ people are really on their feet, egging him on to create instrumental mayhem.

Brooks may include new material his set, but he’s readier than Tommy Castro to lean on blues classics as a catalyst for traditional guitar fireworks.  He does it brilliantly too, as the crowd reaction attests.  But at the same time it perhaps draws attention away from the new songs, leaving the audience sated, but not overly challenged to explore new horizons.  Whatever – Ronnie Baker Brooks still knows how to rock the joint.  Big time.

Tommy Castro & The Painkillers tour Europe and the UK in November and December, details here.

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