Tommy Castro has a problem: he's the victim of his own success. As problems go, it's probably not a bad place to be, but the question remains. Just how do you top yourself when your last album won a coveted Blues Music Award as "Contemporary Blues Album of the Year" and you walked off with the "B.B. King Entertainer of the Year" Award as Castro did in 2008?
Tommy Castro's Hard Believer
In Castro's defense, any career has its peaks and valleys, and following up on the phenomenal success of his award-winning 2007 release Painkiller was probably going to result in a sort of letdown, no matter what the talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist attempted. In a March 2009 interview, Castro told About.com Blues about the upcoming album. "We had a lot of fun making it," says Castro. "We did what I always try to do...find something different, something that I haven't done already, and try not to repeat the same formula, but remain true to ourselves and the tradition of the style of music that we play, which is blues, soul music, and rock 'n' roll, a combination of those things."
To say that Castro succeeded in his goals for Hard Believer would be an understatement. The album is a white-hot collection of spirited, unpretentious performances, each song approached by Castro and his flamethrower band with the ferocity of a hungry heavyweight-class prizefighter. Given the energy and passion imbued in these songs by everybody involved, it's clear that Castro and the boys feel that they still have something to prove, and rather than rest on their considerable laurels, they've delivered another standard-setting musical masterpiece.
Blues, Soul & Rock 'n' Roll
Just as Castro promised, Hard Believer is an inspired collection of blues, soul, and rock 'n' roll, and what's surprising here isn't that they've managed to find a way to top the sound and fury of Painkiller, but that they - Castro and his incredible band, again working with noted producer John Porter - make it seem so effortless, so casual that they can perfectly replicate not only the sound, but the lifeforce of the styles they inhabit as easily as pulling on a favorite t-shirt. "Definition of Insanity," for instance, is a funky throwback to the 1970s with a slinky groove, blasts of silky hornplay, Castro's gruff-but-soulful vocals, and a bit of clever lyrical wordplay.
The title track is a burning ember of soul worthy of Otis Redding, the band delivering a deep groove while Castro's vocals sound like a cross between Otis and Frankie Miller. A cover of the Wilson Pickett/Eddie Floyd R&B rave-up "Ninety-Nine And One Half" is spot-on Memphis soul served up with a side o' greens, while Castro's spry take on Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" is both reverential and possessed by a higher power. Castro's originals are particularly strong this time out, "Trimmin' Fat" is a funny story-song with a swaggering attitude and Castro's scorching fretwork and "Make It Back To Memphis" is a rollicking honky-tonk barn-burner with a rockabilly heart and oodles of blue-eyed soul. Somewhere up above, Charlie Feathers is smiling....
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Tommy Castro isn't a pure bluesman, but you'll hear the spirit of pure blues in the raucous musical hybrid that has become his trademark sound. There's plenty to love on Hard Believer, from the band's energetic and lively performances, to Castro's inspired choice of cover tunes and his own considerable original songs.
As deep as the muddy Mississippi and as wide as the entire United States, Hard Believer is a big-hearted celebration of American music, and from blues and soul to R&B and rock, Castro and his band of merry fellow travelers kick out the jams with a joy and affection that is downright infectious. (Alligator Records, released August 11, 2009)
Tommy Castro - Hard Believer Tracklist
1. Definition of Insanity
2. It Is What It Is
3. Hard Believer
4. Monkey's Paradise
5. Ninety-Nine and One Half
6. Backup Plan
7. Gotta Serve Somebody
8. Trimmin' Fat
9. Make It Back To Memphis
10. Victims of the Darkness
11. My Babe
12. The Trouble With Soul