Tommy Castro’s first release for the Alligator label might
just be the best yet from this veteran Bay Area blues artist. Castro has long
been known for his mixture of blues, soul and rock. His world-wide touring
earned him a 2008 Blues Music Award as Entertainer of the Year. But Hard Believer showcases Castro’s soulful
voice, searing guitar and excellent song writing ability as it reaches new
heights. Castro pays homage on this CD to the Memphis sound while not being afraid to
update it for a new century.
Listen to the title cut, close your eyes and you will be
convinced that you are listening to Otis Redding singing in 1967. “Hard
Believer” is one of the greatest songs Castro has ever written, which is saying
something. Castro’s plaintiff, soul dripping vocals display not only the
influence of Otis but other blues/soul legends like Ray Charles, Delbert
McClinton and Wilson Pickett. Castro even does an excellent job of covering one
of the Wicket Pickett’s songs on this album: “Ninety-Nine and One Half.”
Soul music was not just great emotional singing, however.
Where would Stax Records be without the horn section? And Hard Believer is filled with tremendous horn work from Keith
Crossan and Tom Poole. And just as with the legends of soul, Castro knows how
to use the horns as perfect counterpoint to the vocals, not so much as a “call
and response” of classic gospel/blues, but as a way of underlining the feeling
of the song. The horns fill the spaces within the songs and grab at your heart.
Another classic element of soul music was that at a time of
political turmoil when American cities burned each long hot summer, the Memphis sound was a sound
of hope. On “Hard Believer” Castro sings, “Lost my faith in miracles, but here
I go believing again.” This is songwriting that fits today’s world.
But Castro is not just a great soul singer, he is also a
great guitarist. And on songs like the up-tempo “Definition of Insanity” and
the rock/shuffle “It is what it is”, Castro gets a chance to display his guitar.
Another standout track here is “Trimmin’
Fat”. Castro shows an ability to update soul with his blistering slide which
comes right out of the blues/rock idiom. His writing addresses the systematic
destruction of American jobs that had taken place in recent years. This is not
a nostalgia trip album. Castro sings, “They do your job in China for 100
bucks a day. You better come down and get your last week’s pay. Now I did not
lose my job. I know where it’s at. Everybody’s trimmin’ fat.” This is timely
topical blues for the first decade of the 21st century. The song fades out with Castro asking, “What
about my 401 K? How ‘bout that boss man? We could give him a little less money
and that would make a nice big job for me.” Tell that to the banksters and
crooks at Citibank and Goldman Sachs. Castro probably won’t be invited to play
that protest song at any well paying corporate gigs.
Castro wrote six of the 12 tracks on Hard Believer. Besides the Pickett cover, he also includes covers of
Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” as well as a brilliant fast-paced Alan Toussaint
song, “Victims of the Darkness,” and “My Babe” by the Righteous Brothers. The
production here is excellent and the sound is lush. The album was produced by
John Porter, who has worked with artists including Elvis Costello, Roxy Music,
B.B. King and Keb Mo.
After 20 years as a solo artist and 13 albums, Tommy Castro
is just hitting his stride. He is one of the greatest blues guitarists,
songwriters and entertainers in the world today. Hard Believer shows us why and gives a hint of the great work he is
about to produce with Alligator.
Standout Tracks: “Hard
Believer” “Trimmin’ Fat” “Backup Plan” TOM CALLAHAN