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Latter-Day Bluesman Tommy Castro Introduces Us to The Devil You Know

Tommy Castro lets 'er rip live onstage.
Tommy Castro lets 'er rip live onstage.
Photo by Lewis MacDonald/Courtesy of Alligator Records

If you had to find a CD by Tommy Castro, chances are you'd find one (or all) of them in the "Blues" section. But with his most recent release, The Devil You Know (Alligator Records), the 59-year-old California native who has been making records for 20 years consciously wanted to do something different.

"It's still blues-based, but I wanted a leaner sound, more guitar-driven and rocking. Something along the lines of the acts I listened to growing up like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Traffic," he says.

"I wanted to get the feeling I had like when I was a kid and playing guitar with my friends," he adds. "And I wanted it to sound contemporary."

And he succeeds with this baker's dozen songs, most of which he co-wrote with a number of collaborators including co-producer Bonnie Hayes.

Standouts include the title track, about a woman who is reluctant to trade in her current "devil" of a man for another; a cover of J.B. Lenoir's "The Whale Have Swallowed Me"; and "When I Cross the Mississippi," "That's All I Got" and "Center of Attention."

The last track makes the loud, drunk, party woman of Billy Joel's "Big Shot" look like a shrinking violet by comparison. Castro says that it was based on a real woman who definitely should never think about driving herself home from any festivities.

"That one is right in your face, it's like [this woman] is fucked up. And everybody knows one!" Castro laughs of the blistering putdown he co-wrote with Ron Allen Cohen.

"It's based on a person in my life that I was not happy with, and I may have been complaining about this person to another person," he adds. "And I just jotted some things down."

The record also features a cover of "Keep on Smilin,'" the enduring 1974 radio hit from southern rockers Wet Willie. It's the least blues-based number on the entire thing. Castro, a longtime friend of Wet Willie Singer Jimmy Hall, says he and his band often play the track live and it gets "amazing response" from the crowd.

"I wanted to record something that sounded like Derek Trucks playing," he says. "An old hippie-jam kind of thing."

Trucks -- along with the Black Keys, Jack White, and Gary Clark Jr. -- are some of the newer acts that Castro has been listening to a lot lately, and were an influence on the new record. He credits his "music loving" teenage children with introducing him to these more modern bluesmen.

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The Devil You Know is also the first record to feature the Painkillers -- Randy McDonald (bass), James Pace (keyboards), and Byron Cage (drums - though it's David Tucker in the current touring lineup). It's a slimmer slate of musicians than Castro's previous larger and horn-heavy backers.

And he's got a bevy of guests making appearances including Joe Bonamassa, Marcia Ball, the Holmes Brothers, Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band, and Tab Benoit, with whom he has crossed paths a lot on various blues cruises.

"On those things, I meet a lot of people who play a lot of music," Castro says. "From electric blues to Delta blues to Louisiana music. We exchange ideas, and even steal ideas! But I was just blown away by Tab Benoit. He's the real deal."

Castro says that it's probably been "two or three years" since he played Houston at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar. And that he's looking forward to coming back to Texas to play for both his old fans and newer ones he hopes to attract with The Devil You Know.

"I'm not gonna bore myself to death doing the same thing over and over, and I hope my fans feel the same way," he sums up. "I hope they want me to take them somewhere new."

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers perform 8:30 p.m. tonight at Dosey Doe Music Café, 463 F.M. 1488 in Conroe.

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