For the most part, 'tribute' discs fall into two distinct categories. There are the multi-artist gatherings, generally little more than a marketing strategy dreamed up by suits who figure there's a buck to be made; and there are efforts by individual artists that are either heartfelt and sincere, or a sign of creative drought.
Tommy Castro's latest outing, simply titled "Gratitude," is definitely heartfelt. It's his way of saying thanks to those who've come before, who've given us all so much great music. Accordingly, we get covers here of material associated with seminal figures in both blues and soul music. Fortunately Tommy's chosen wisely, avoiding the obvious and going instead for largely lesser-known numbers; and for the most part he manages to find the right balance between respectful reverence and a fresh, invigorating approach that breathes new life into the well-worn.
Opening with "I Take What I Want," Tommy's short instrumental intro soon gives way to a pounding groove featuring the rollicking piano of guest John Turk. Obviously any song associated with Sam & Dave requires duet vocals; Curtis Salgado and Tommy do their forbears proud. Ray Charles' "Come Back Baby" is given an impassioned reading that showcases Tommy's gritty voice to excellent effect; "Lovey Dovey," the Carla Thomas/Otis Redding chestnut, again requires vocal support, and here Tommy's ably assisted by Sista Monica Parker. The two take things to a fever pitch before Tommy settles into a rather uptown version of Howlin' Wolf's "44" (Q: is this the shortest song title ever?) that simply lacks the requisite menace. Next it's B. B.'s "Bad Case Of Love," with typically stellar sax work from Tommy's long-time associate Keith Crossan. Tommy's slashing guitar on the outro provides a fitting lead-in to Chuck Berry's "Tulane," marking the return of Mr. Salgado, whose harmonica provides effective rhythmic support, his solo an all-too-short blast of high-end octane.
John Lee Hooker's classic "Serves You Right To Suffer" gets a twist, with Tommy singing it as "serves me right." Not the first time this tune's been re-worked, nor is this the best version I've encountered; Tommy tries a little too hard to update things here, and the song's emotional punch gets lost in a too-busy arrangement. Better - and one of the disc's highlights - is James Brown's "I Feel That Old Feeling Coming On." With energy to spare and superb vocals (Tommy's rasp just right here, and it's admirably augmented with scorching sax), it leads into a fine version of Albert King's "Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven," seemingly a little closer to Tommy's usual territory (uptown, lots of horns, a touch of funk, and absolutely fierce guitar).
Tommy's take on Wilson Pickett's "I Found A Love" is breathtaking; no, no one can match Mr. Pickett, but Tommy testifies, leaving absolutely no doubt that he understands found love can be fleeting; there's as much pleading here as celebrating, and his intensity is utterly irresistible. Muddy's "I Want To Be Loved" (a Willie Dixon composition) doesn't fare as well; again, he goes for an overblown arrangement that leaves no room for the sly innuendo essential to the song. It's short, though, and any misgivings are quickly forgotten with Tommy's take on Buddy Guy's "When My Left Eye Jumps," a superb outing that shows Tommy anyone's equal (yes, even Buddy) on the fretboard.
Tommy's own efforts throughout the late nineties tended, to my ears at least, toward the too-slick, as though commercial considerations and audience expectations were a little too prominent in the decision-making. On "Gratitude" he favours a relatively stripped down approach with lots of grease and grit. And taking the all-cover route means he's free to interpret rather than anticipate, with the result some of his most direct and compelling music to date. There are still moments of excess, when his solos contain more notes than necessary. But given he's paying homage here, rather than recreating the past, one could argue he's simply updating things for today's tastes.
Minor quibbles aside, this is a top-notch outing that ought to raise Tommy's profile considerably. Heart & Soul Records may be a small label, but if they can find a few dollars for promotion, this one could put him firmly in the blues stratosphere.
Heart & Soul Records
1961 Rice Street, Roseville, MN 55113
Web: www.heartandsoulrecords.com or www.ultramusicgroup.com
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