Having spent the past few decades toiling in the blues, San Francisco singer and guitarist Tommy Castro is something of what you might call a “devil you know” in the genre. Whether seeing him live or listening to one of his albums, fans know they can always rely on Castro to deliver a solid mix of blues, soul, and R&B sounds, including an abundance of hard-working grooves and superb lyrics.
A while back, we told you about Castro’s new, scaled-down band the Painkillers, a bit of a “devil you don’t know” to be sure, although early indications – such as the band’s 45 single “Greedy” – were that these guys were plenty impressive.
Fortunately, there’s no need to decide between the better of the two in this instance, with Castro and the band together in full force on their debut album The Devil You Know, released last week on Alligator Records. And, like the place the devil calls home, this one is a scorcher.
Joined by guests that include Tab Benoit, Marcia Ball, Joe Bonamassa, the Holmes Brothers, Samantha Fish, and Magic Dick, among others, the four-piece band tears through a baker’s dozen of high intensity, groove-filled tracks, including nine originals either penned or co-written by Castro.
It all kicks off with the devilishly good title track – a tough-as-nails guitar-driven rocker with such lyrics as “the devil that I know, is a cheater and a liar/ now why would I go jumpin’, from the pan into the fire?/ but if I do, you better get on your knees and pray/ when you dance with the devil, you only have hell to pay” – that sets the stage magnificently for what’s to come, from the slick uptempo R&B grooves – including some from Robert Cray keyboardist Jim Pugh on organ – of the soulful rocker “Second Mind”, all the way to the greasy closer “Greedy”, the lyrics of which present a scathing commentary on the evils of corporate excess.
Joe Bonamassa joins on guitar for a shuffling take on Savoy Brown’s “I’m Tired”, with other covers including the album’s breeziest number in J.B. Lenoir’s “The Whale Have Swallowed Me” – a swaying duet with R&B legend Johnnie Taylor’s youngest daughter Tasha Taylor that also features some gritty guitar and funky keyboards; a soulful, J. Geils-style work-up on southern rockers Wet Willie’s “Keep on Smilin'”; and a “Mojo Hannah” (the Neville Brothers, Marvin Gaye) with a Dr. John-ish twist, thanks in part to the addition of Marcia Ball on both piano and vocals.
“Center of Attention” is an unrelenting, in-your-face affair, while Alligator labelmates the Holmes Brothers lend some background vocals, and J. Geils Band’s Magic Dick some harmonica, for a similarly hard-driving “Two Steps Forward”. Castro’s rapping vocals on “She Wanted to Give It to Me” help give that track a bit of a J. Geils sound as well, with Tab Benoit adding some Cajun seasoning on both vocals and guitar for a mighty “When I Cross the Mississippi” – also featuring the great Mike Finnigan (Phantom Blues Band) on organ – and Samantha Fish sharing vocals with Castro on the rocking “Medicine Woman”.
The album closes on the somewhat familiar sounds of the band’s earlier singles, the pleasantly hypnotic “That’s All I Got” and of course “Greedy”, but not before making one hell of an impression. Castro’s vocals here are at perhaps their grittiest and most soulful ever, combined with some superb guitar; even the longest and most loyal of the larger Tommy Castro Band fans will have to appreciate – and no doubt be delighted by – the tightness and resulting sound of this fantastic foursome.
Like the old saying from which its title derives, The Devil You Know is better – than just about anything else you’ve heard lately, including from Castro himself. Certain to be among the, if not the, year’s best, The Devil You Know is one you’re going to want to stick with for a mighty long time.