Bay Area legends Tower of Power rumbled into Lake Tahoe on Friday night and took everyone at MontBleu Casino Resort & Spa back to when soul music ruled the land and everyone knew what was hip.
In 2019, there is no question that the musical landscape is as diverse and accessible as its ever been, decentralizing the power of musical institutions such as radio stations, record stores and music labels and fracturing styles and sounds into a plethora of tiny little kingdoms. It’s ultimately a good thing, but it can be daunting to dive into wormhole after wormhole on the internet trying to find and experience it all.
Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and look at where we’ve come in the last 60 years of music in pop culture and acknowledge some of the bands and artists whose influence has transcended those generations.
Oakland’s Tower of Power is one of those bands that has stood the test of time. Formed in 1968, the band blossomed in the golden era of soul and funk music of the 1960s and 1970s and was one of the first signed to legendary promoter Bill Graham’s record label. Tower’s revved-up funk rhythms, massive five-piece horn section and soul-styled songwriting helped establish the East Bay- style of music is known for introducing a little grease lightning into R&B. Throughout its prime, ToP released a number of legendary albums, including “East Bay Grease” and “Back To Oakland,” and sent singles such as “Sparkling In The Sand” and “What Is Hip?” and “So Very Hard To Go” up the charts.
Tower of Power is celebrating its 51st anniversary this year and Friday night was the first of a two-night blowout to toast the band along the shores of Lake Tahoe on MontBleu. The band is one of the last survivors of soul music’s Golden Age that is still touring, which alone is enough to celebrate and get fans in the room.
But when the 10-piece pack of silver foxes strolled onstage to form a literal tower of sound— with the rhythm section on risers and the iconic five-piece horn section in front— the musicians weren’t there to be placated and saunter through their collective. They came to put some oil in the engine, hit the gas and redline the soul and funk.
With power and authority, Tower of Power kicked the show into gear with “Stroke 75,” which rumbled on the full-throttle rhythm of bassist Marc van Wageningen and drummer and founding member David Garibaldi and with high octane flourishes from tenor sax man Tom Politzer.
Surely there have been tune-ups and trips to the garage over Tower’s multi-decade career, but everything was humming under the hood like it was brand new right from the get-go Friday night. The band was nice and hot after the opening sprint and then glided into the sunny R&B strut of the hit “Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now,” allowing vocalist Marcus Scott his first opportunity to let his pipes shine. Scott is obviously the youngest member of the band by a couple decades, but he joins the grand tradition of being Tower of Power’s featured vocalist and his youth brought a vigor to his performance that uplifted the band.
It was quite impressive watching ToP roll through its extensive catalog. Though this band has gone through lineup changes over years, this iteration of the band hasn’t lost much step to the one hitting the Oakland streets in 1968. Garibaldi is still joined by founding members Emilio Castillo on tenor sax and Stephen “Doc” Kupka on baritone sax, with keyboardist Roger Smith, trumpeters Adolfo Acosta and Sal Cracchiolo and guitarist Jerry Cortez rounding out a veteran lineup. They dropped classic after classic on the crowd, including a buzzing “Only So Much Oil in The Ground” and romantic “You’re Still A Young Man,” and the band still had the grace and panache to cruise the songs’ nimble rhythms and melodies.
No doubt, Tower of Power is still a live and creative force. It played two songs from its most recent album, 2018’s “Soul Side of Town,” including the title track, which featured the big-city funk sound that ToP does so well.
The night’s most poignant moment came with Castillo took a break to wax poetic about the origins of the band (early names included The Roadrunners, The Black Orpheus and The Motowns) and how he got started playing music with his friend Jodi Lopez when he was 15. He then brought out Lopez, who was an original member of the band, and had him play acoustic guitar on the first track he and Castillo ever wrote together, Tower of Power’s first hit, “Sparkling In The Sand.”
As the sweeping track swelled over the crowd, Lopez and Castillo exchanged a couple glances and it was clear they were having a tender moment. Somehow, their childish dreams had come true and they were still playing music together 50-plus years later and the gratefulness on their smiling faces couldn’t be denied.
Tower of Power ended its first night with two of its most famous songs, a one-two punch of “What Is Hip?” and “Knock Yourself Out.” They blasted out the backend of the show and the crowd roared with approval as they exited the stage. The pioneering spirit of the band is still alive and it was special to have these legends take everyone back in time on a personal tour of some of the most iconic music in history. They would be back on Saturday night, proving sometimes lightning does strike twice.
— Garrett Bethmann