Monday, September 13, 2021

Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Town - A Blues Odyssey

First of all, hats off to Tommy Castro for trying something a bit different.  “Concept album” isn’t a phrase one hears bandied about much in relation to roots music, but A Bluesman Came To Town fits the bill, with its tale of a young man from 'Somewhere' who gets hooked on the blues and hits the road with his guitar.
It’s a nice enough idea - an opening out of the Johnny B. Goode story, if you like, over 13 tracks.  I’ll let you discover the story for yourself, but for me, over the piece, the narrative feels a bit
prosaic as it relates the ups and downs of the anonymous hero’s life on his “blues odyssey”.  The melodies on a couple of songs feel somewhat predictable too.  But these misgivings aside there’s still plenty to enjoy, not least because Castro makes use of a number of roots styles to good effect.
Tommy Castro crosses a black cat's path
Pic by Victoria Smith

Take the plenty satisfying brace of ‘You To Hold On To’ and ‘I Wanna Go Back Home’ for example.  The first is a slice of Springsteen-esque soul, Castro’s aching vocal depicting the kid’s reflections on the girl he’s leaving behind for the road, set to a slow and steady arrangement with some country-ish twang and a sweet guitar solo.  The latter is in a similar vein, with Castro making like Ben E. King over a Memphis soul sound of mellow organ and subtle rhythm guitar, enhanced by an emotive sax solo.  And reaching further back into the soul vibe, ‘Child Don’t Go’ is a gospel-driven duet by Castro and Terrie Odabi, offering parental advice about the big bad world over backing with pots of brio courtesy of Kevin McKendree’s boisterous honky tonk piano and Castro’s steely guitar solo.
Castro and co can rock too, whether it’s the upbeat rock’n’roll of ‘I Caught A Break’, with its  infectious chorus and overt musical and lyrical allusions to 'Johnny B. Goode', or the mid-paced post-Hendrixism of ‘Women, Drugs And Alcohol’, its sturdy riff punctuated by bright, offbeat chords and needle-sharp guitar licks as it gradually whips up energy.  The funky inflections of the latter get fuller expression too, on ‘Hustle’, which has a lot more to do with James Brown than Van McCoy, with jingling rhythm guitar and sassy horns, and Castro even indulging in a spot of rapping.  Well, kinda.
When it comes to slower stuff, the downbeat blues-rock of ‘Draw The Line’, with its shimmering keys, has more to offer than the slow-blues-by-numbers feel of ‘Blues Prisoner’, capturing the mood well as the lyric offers a response to the tribulations of ‘Women, Drugs And Alcohol’.  And still in straightforward blues territory, the insistent ‘I Got Burned’ has more personality than the rather pedestrian tune of ‘Bluesman Comes To Town’, even if both feature stinging guitar solos.  More ear-catching than either of those, though, is ‘Bring It On Back’ on which Castro’s buzzing slide guitar and Tommy MacDonald’s bass bring juddering urgency to the riff, played off against a tense drum rhythm from producer Tom Hambridge.
I like Tommy Castro.  As a songwriter he’s capable of evoking atmosphere and a sense of place, he has a convincing, soulful voice, and he wields his six string effectively in a number of styles.  It’s a shame that the over-arching story on the album isn’t more gripping, but at least Castro hasn’t overplayed his hand and tried to produce a “blues opera” of Wagnerian proportions.  Thanks to that self-discipline, A Bluesman Came To Town isn’t weighed down by filler, and Castro’s qualities are still able to come to the fore and shine.

Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Town is released by Alligator Records on 17 September.

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