There are at least a thousand jokes that start out, “A man walks into a bar.” Well, let me tell you, last night Alligator recording blues artist Tommy Castro and his group The Painkillers, didn’t just walk into the Tin Pan, they absolutely lit the joint up for over 90 minutes of high octane music.
That’s not terribly surprising considering Castro’s years of touring, but you can tell when a performer is going through the motions, and Castro’s engagement with the audience and enthusiasm for the music were the driving force behind last night’s show. The man was non-stop from the first note until the last fan got a handshake from Castro and headed out the door.
The show started off on a high note as the band vamped their way through an instrumental while Castro ran on stage, strapped on his guitar, and started talking with the audience, whipping the near sold-out crowd up and jumping into the first song of the night, a cover of Elvin Bishop’s Rock Bottom.
Castro’s band is one tight trio: Randy McDonald is a badass bass player who along with drummer Bowen Brown formed a solid rhythm section and kept the groove going all night. The third member is Mike Emerson on keys whose playing occasionally acted like a second lead guitar and added a deeper dimension to the music.
After that opening, the group kept the energy level high with a great rendition of a song Castro wrote with Robert Cray’s former keyboardist Jimmy Pugh, Nonchalant. When I first heard the song, it struck me as one that really needs to be getting airplay – it’s a hot rocking blues number with a good hook and very strong lyrics.
They then moved into The Devil You Know without a pause or segue. Three hot songs in a row and the audience was cheering everything and applauding Castro’s guitar breaks. As soon as the song finished, Castro yelled out, “It’s Blues time! Blues on a Sunday night!”
With that, the band launched into the first slow blues songs of the night, a blistering version of Lose Lose. From there the band moved into a cover of Further On Down The Road which featured some great keyboard work from Emerson.
After that song was over and the audience was feeling mellow, Castro told a story of his early days when there were “three blues bars on every block in San Francisco.” When the band was playing, inevitably there would come a time when an audience member would yell, “Ride, boys, ride.” Castro took that exhortation and turned it into the song, The Ride, which featured another stellar run from Emerson.
Before the audience could respond to the song, Castro and The Painkillers played an outstanding cover of Tom Petty’s Breakdown. Afterwards he commented “and the music lives on” and more than a few people stood and applauded – a tribute to Petty and to Castro’s playing.
More great music followed with Blues All Around Me and from his second album, Can’t Keep A Good Man Down, which earned him another standing ovation. The great thing about both songs is they remind us that blues music is there to help lift our burdens, and even in the darkened room, you could see smiles on so many faces.
Castro was feeling a little sentimental at that point. It would be hard not too, and he introduced his son, Skyeler, who was running sound and who is a member of a California-based heavy metal band, Pantheon. He also introduced Sammi McDonald, Randy’s daughter, who is a fast-rising hip-hop artist, producer and director.
Under her performing name, Blimes Brixton, she joined the band for a break in the song, She Wanted To Give It To Me. It’s pretty obvious that I am not the target audience for hip-hop, although I will confess that I enjoy the verbal assault of the poetry, let me tell you that Brixton just might change my mind. Her lyrics were honest and her stage presence is commanding. After the show, I probably spent as much time talking to her about her career as I did Castro and the guys, and when she drops an album, I will gladly review it. In the meantime, be sure to check out her video, Look At Me Now on youtube.
After that, Castro was feeling nostalgic and it was the perfect time to play My Old Neighborhood, a love letter to his home town of San José. The song is a beautiful look back at the images he remembers, and for so many of us, it perfectly describes the town where we grew up. After that, he played Love Is Love complete with some wicked slide work.
He closed with a great version of Changes and the audience stayed on their collective feet for a long standing ovation. There was no way the audience was going to let him go, and Castro and the Painkillers returned with an encore of Shake A Hard Time Lose.
Nearly every person on the around 200 that were packed into the Tin Pan stuck around to connect with Castro at the merchandise table. It has become an important part of every performance in these intimate venues. Not only can you connect with musicians you love, with the industry taking it on the chin with album sales, it gives the artists a valuable way to get physical copies of their work into our hands. Castro has done his last three albums on vinyl as well as on CD, so for those who love records, Castro (and a growing number of artists) makes them available.
Nothing will ever take the place of live music. Catching a hard working performer like Tommy Castro is a treat – hopefully we will continue to see performers of his status in venues like the Tin Pan all over the country. If you would like to investigate where Castro and other performers will be playing, be sure to check out the sister blog to this one where I will be listing more shows across the country.
(Photos of Tommy Castro and the Painkillers by Anita Schlank. Used by permission.)