Tommy Castro, "Hard Believer"
Although the critical kudos and myriad music awards that journeyman blues-rocker Tommy Castro has earned during his lengthy career haven't yet elevated him to the level of Buddy Guy or Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Bay Area guitarist remains a reliable fixture on the contemporary blues scene. He splits his 13th album, "Hard Believer," between covers and originals, including an irresistibly funky take on Allen Toussaint's "Victims of the Darkness" and Wilson Pickett's Eddie Floyd-penned hit, "Ninety-Nine and One Half," which spotlights Castro's keening rasp and stinging, Eric Clapton-informed fretwork. Less compelling is a rote reading of Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," by now in need of permanent mothballing. "Hard Believer" won't alter Castro's midlevel status, but the John Porter-produced album has street-level grit and a soulful sincerity that's impossible to ignore. --Fred Mills