A bluesman came to town

Jill Fisher

Tommy Castro plays an acoustic set at the West. Photo by Doug Keyport.

The West Theater was THE scene for beaucoup blues on Thursday, March 23. Tommy Castro & the Painkillers brought all the blues that blues fans could want and then some. Castro, with his painkiller pals, Randy McDonald (bass guitar), Mike Emerson (keyboards) and Bowen Brown (drums) kicked off their 30th Anniversary Tour of 27-plus North American cities right here in Duluth.  

Tommy Castro has been here before, having played in six Bayfront Blues Festivals. A friend told me she had heard him previously around here and I may have heard him myself, either during the 1998 or 2021 festival, but I can’t recall as I wasn’t familiar with him or his band. I will endeavor to get familiar now!  

With 21 albums to his credit, dating to the mid-90s, there’s a lot of catching up with Castro to do. This concert was a good time to get started as the band’s setlist included songs from nine of 21 albums released to date. The band started out on rowdy note with Stompin’ Ground, the title track from its 2017 album.

Next up was the plaintive “Love Don’t Care” from the 2007 album, Painkiller, for which the current makeup of the band is named. A really hot “Bad Case of Love” from Gratitude, released in 2003, followed, as did “Make It Back To Memphis” (2009 Hard Believer album) and “She Wanted To Give It To Me” from Killin’ It Live (2019).  

Before playing “A Bluesman Came to Town,” the title track of the band’s most recent album released in 2021, Castro explained it was a theme album with a story. He advised the audience that “when” they bought it, on either vinyl or the “old-fashioned CD”, they should listen to it clear through at first so as to understand the story being told. The album warranted an additional three numbers, “Blues Prisoner” and “Somewhere” performed in the first set and “Hustle” wrapping up the second.  

One of the nice features of this concert was Castro’s solo numbers that initiated the second set. After explaining how he learned to play acoustic guitars during the COVID hiatus, he began with a lovely rendition of “Buckdancer’s Choice” played on a resonator guitar and followed that with a cover of Taj Mahal’s “Klondike Gold.” Then Castro introduced “a special song for Duluthians”: Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” which he needed to run through as an instrumental before he recalled the lyrics. You can imagine the wildly enthusiastic response to this number from the audience. Switching to an acoustic guitar, Castro covered Tom Waits’ song, “Always Keep a Diamond In Your Mind.” This solo interlude provided a welcome variation to the overall highly charged character of the performance.  

When the three “Painkillers” rejoined Castro on stage it was back to their boisterous blues with a cover of “Rollin’ & Tumblin’.” Blending electric blues with rock and roll, soul and even a wee bit of reggae, the guys shook the house with its near capacity crowd.

Applause and hooting erupted numerous times for the outstanding instrumental solos, particularly Mike Emerson’s turns at the keyboard. McDonald was playing a noticeably oversized electric bass guitar, a “Reverend,” that served to both enhance his stagecraft and visually diminish his size, which he mitigated with a very spiffy sparkly outfit. Bowen Brown, in his fedora, maintained an unceasing, driving and danceable beat throughout the entire evening performance.  

One of the pronouncements made by Castro was that he “likes this place” indicating both the West Theater and Duluth, making references to his appearances at Bayfront Blues Festivals in the 2000 aughts and teens. Further he said he hopes to get back here again one of these days. The audience roared their approval.  

The concert continued on a high vibe with “The Devil You Know,” the title track of the 2014 album and moving onto “What You Gonna Do Now?” from the 2005 Soul Shaker. TC & the Painkillers’ second set also included both “Like An Angel” and the title track from Right As Rain (1999) as well as “My Old Neighborhood” from Stompin’ Ground.  

The audience did not want the concert to end and gave the band a standing ovation as it called for “one more!” And so TC & the Painkillers rounded out their performance with an encore of  “Gimme Some Lovin’” recorded in 1966 by the Spencer Davis Group.  And did they ever get that. Nearly everyone (even the Curmudgeon) lauded the concert as being “great!” with which I concur. (But one “outlier” found fault with the concert, citing the quality of sound at the left wall where he was sitting.)

My analysis is that  Tommy Castro appeared to be the consummate entertainer – talented, charming, unpretentious and personal in his approach. For those of you who missed this concert, you might want to check out the band as they played an hour-long set at the Montreux Jazz Club (in Switzerland on the shore of Lake Geneva) online at: TOMMY CASTRO & the Painkillers @ Montreux Jazz Festival 2015 - YouTube  

Other gigs worthy of note last week: Mumblin’ Drew Temperante at Sir Ben’s on Wednesday; March 22 played some wonderful old-timey songs. He informed me he was moving to Minneapolis soon, but will be playing at Cedar Lounge from 5-8 pm this Friday, March 31. Boss Mama & the Jebberhooch were wonderful, as always, during their residency at Duluth Cider that same evening. Late on Friday, March 24, Indecent Proposal rocked Caddyshack in Lincoln Park after two of its members, Jason Owen and Mike Smisek, played an opener set with both original tunes and covers. It was too bad so few people were there to hear them, they sounded pretty darn good. Keep them on your music gig radar! Then there was the “Ides of March” event at Pizza Lucé held on Friday and Saturday: it was on the latter evening that I got to see Rick Bruner and Misisipi Mike Wolf rip it up doing covers of Black Keys band from 10-11 pm. Wish I could’ve stayed awake longer to hear the next band cover songs by The Cure, but it had been a long week of music fun.