Following a powerful 2014 debut (The Devil You Know) that featured guest appearances from the likes of Tab Benoit, Marcia Ball, Joe Bonamassa, Samantha Fish, the Holmes Brothers, and Magic Dick, among others, hard-working bluesman Tommy Castro and his trimmed-down band The Painkillers are very much holding their own on their sophomore release Method to My Madness (Alligator Records).
With the 60-year-old Castro having written or co-written all but two of the album’s dozen tracks and also producing for the first time, The Painkillers prove here that they don’t need big name guests to sound good, something to which anyone who has witnessed the band live during these first four years of its existence can also attest, with The Painkillers already ranking as one of the tightest bands in the blues today despite both its short history and a few changes in personnel that now find Bowen Brown on drums and percussion and Michael Emerson on keyboards (the latter having replaced younger player James Pace just since we saw the band in May at the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival).
But with Castro and longtime friend and bassist (and Harrisburg, PA native) Randy McDonald continuing to lay down the riffs on guitar, this band hasn’t missed a beat – and indeed is sounding better every time around – once again delivering a solid, satisfying blend of blues, soul, funk, R&B, and rock filled with plenty of greasy, West Coast grooves on Method to My Madness, about which Castro commented: “With the new album, I was trying to get back to my basic ingredients: blues and soul. I went for the energy of connecting with my band. We kept everything raw, capturing the feeling of playing live.”
That energy and rawness is evident from even the album’s catchy opening track, “Common Ground”, with its unifying cry of “We got to stand together, on common ground/ we got to band together, or we all fall down” and other upbeat messages such as “left, right, black or white, we all dream about the same things at night/ let’s wake up people, it’s time to build a brand new day” and “everybody lookin’ for someone to blame/ we’re not as different as we are the same”. You’ll also hear it on songs like the rocking title track, the grungy, shuffling “Shine a Light”, the full-tilt bayou boogie of “Got A Lot”, and the gritty, modern-day hard-luck story “No Such Luck” that features some Santana-like licks along with its lyrics about one man’s problems in even obtaining the woman or job that other bluesmen can only sing about losing.
There’s also a slick work-up of Clarence Carter’s funky “I’m Qualified”, the greasy “All About the Cash” co-written by harmonica player Rick Estrin, and a haunting, hypnotic “Ride” on which you can easily picture the bluesman cruising the strip, while the slow, passionate ballad “Died and Gone to Heaven” and the swaying soul of a Delbert McClinton-like “Two Hearts” allow the San Jose, California, native to show off his more sensitive side, the former even including some nice harmony vocals from the rest of the band.
It’s all good of course, but The Painkillers may be at their very best on the bluesier numbers, which here include the slow but steady, Joe Louis Walker co-written “Lose Lose” and the terrific heartfelt cover of B.B. King’s “Bad Luck” that closes the album. Castro’s vocals and playing are, as always, superb, but the real treat is hearing just how far this small band has come in such short time, with even the newest member Emerson making some strong contributions, all helping to make Method to My Madness easily one of the best releases of 2015.