LIVE: Tommy Castro & Mike Zito @ the Upper Room, 4/26/17


Review by Don Wilcock

Six days on the road with a tour they’re calling Six Strings Down, Tommy Castro, his band the Painkillers, and guest star Mike Zito were serving up two and a half hours of music – a buffalo burger piping hot off the grill: lots of beef, no fat, medium rare and tasty as hell.

The two-set show at Albany’s Upper Room was a no-bling, all-sting, meat ‘n’ potatoes feast that showed off the talents of two equally talented blues rocking veterans with matching resumes. Both have three decades in the business, more than a dozen albums a piece on hot blues indie labels and multiple Blues Music Awards.

Fast but never furious, these two juggernauts could have turned their tour into an old-fashioned cutting contest. After all, they only rehearsed for two to three hours before hitting the road. But these guys are consummate professionals who have great respect for one another and were obviously having fun working together. This was no masturbatory guitar jam. Each gave the other space to soar, and they vamped off each other making use of their respective talents.

The repertoire included spirited renditions of the title cuts from their most recent albums up for multiple awards, Castro’s Method to My Madness and Zito’s Make Blues Not War, plus songs from a total of 26 album releases between them.

Zito is from St. Louis and honored native son Chuck Berry with “Johnny B. Goode.” Castro hails from San Francisco and gave a nod to the Bay Area’s favorite sons, the Grateful Dead, with a surprisingly spirited rendition of “Fire on the Mountain.” Both artists’ styles are decidedly more aggressive and structured than Jerry and the kids. That said, Mike and Tommy traded off like Jerry and Bob and gave the Pain Killers a showcase of their versatility, especially on this number.

The band more than lived up to the crackling presentation of their two leaders. Bass player Randy McDonald has been with Castro since 1991 with a five-year gap from 2007-2012. His slap bass on “Fire on the Mountain” provided a very different context to that song. Keyboardist Mike Emerson several times during the night threatened to steal the show with his electronic B3 riffs. His credits include Elvin Bishop, Carlene Carter, Percy Sledge, Harvey Mandel, Debbie Davies and James Armstrong. Bowen Brown’s drumming was a tireless foundation showcasing his experience from six years with John Lee Hooker.

Like two fenders of a black ’59 Caddy, the dauntless duo trucked, slid and sauntered through a looser second set. I say fenders because their guitars looked like Fenders except Castro pointed out they are handmade Delaney guitars from Texas.

They opened the second set with “Tell the Truth” by Derek & the Dominoes that led into “She Wanted to Give It to Me,” a Castro song requested by a female blues fan who travels the country in an RV with her husband from Tampa to San Diego attending blues shows and festivals. Surprisingly eclectic, they closed the set with Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” after nailing “Johnny B. Goode,” “Fire on The Mountain” and a medley of “Shake” with Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is the Right Time” that channeled Slim Harpo/John Lee Hooker hypnotic hip-shaking guitar runs and caught a wave that had the sell-out crowd up and dancing.

It was great to see a capacity crowd willing to pay a fair price for a game-changing legacy duo on a Wednesday night in Greater Nippertown. Timing the show at 7pm to accommodate a working crowd is a smart move, too.

LIVE: Tommy Castro & the Painkillers @ the Upper Room, 10/18/16

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