Oakland’s Tower of Power tore down the house at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe on Friday night, the soul-funk band delivering a tour-de-force performance despite the absence of drummer Dave Garibaldi and backup bassist Marc van Wageningen, both of whom were struck by a train on a transit platform in Oakland in January. Original bassist Rocco Prestia was back onstage with the band.
“People have been stopping us every day and asking are they gonna be OK? They are, and keep praying,” bandleader Emilio Castillo told the roaring crowd in the venerable South Shore Room. “The prayers are working, but it’s gonna take a while. I mean, these fellas got hit by a train.”
Concern for the two musicians notwithstanding, Tower of Power put on an electrifying show, led by new(ish) frontman Marcus Scott, who packs a whole lot of performance into a diminutive frame. Drummer Herman Matthews fit perfectly with the band and he received a thunderous applause when Castillo introduced him.
The band kicked the night off with “We Came to Play,” and they most certainly did. This was my first experience with TOP, and I was immediately floored by the group. The brass section (Castillo, Sal Cracchiolo, Adolfo Acosta, Stephen “Doc” Kupka, and Tom Politzer) caught and held my attention for the rest of the evening, with the trumpets and saxophones forming a tremendous wall of soulful sound.
The evening featured a steady diet of TOP classics, as evidenced from the many fans who sang along. Upbeat funky tunes like “Soul With a Capital ‘S’” and “Ain’t Nothing Stopping Us Now” had the crowd on its feet all night, and anyone who dared sit down was soon exhorted by Scott to get back up.
The youthful frontman brought a great deal of energy to the band, constantly amping up the crowd and goofing off with fans in the front row, at one point jumping down and dancing with concertgoers.
Scott asked the crowd if anyone owned some of TOP’s earlier vinyl records.
“What, from before you were born?” one fan called out good-naturedly.
“That’s right,” Scott said, as the band launched into the slow, sultry groove of “As Surely As I Stand Here Now,” featuring a ripping sax solo by Politzer.
Speaking of solos, they (naturally) occurred often and were of an exceedingly high caliber. Just about every band member took at least one lead, and each one was a thrilling display of virtuosity. On guitar, Jerry Cortez broke out midway through “Just Enough and Too Much,” dropping a bluesy, jazzy, bendy bit that ran at least a minute straight and perfectly evoked Jimmy Page’s fretwork. The horns cut a rug as well, with Cracchiolo, Acosta and Politzer stepping to the front for a number of sizzling solos.
Former South Lake Tahoe resident Roger Smith put on a show for his erstwhile hometown crowd, particularly wowing the audience with a high-octane organ solo during “Only So Much Oil in the Ground,” with a seemingly endless array of notes cascading from his fingers.
My favorite number of the evening was the group’s 1972 hit, “Down to the Nightclub,” on which Castillo stepped up front to sing lead. Castillo was a joy to watch all evening, obviously having the time of his life as he wailed on his sax and sang back up, often punctuating his lines with an insistent finger pointing at the crowd.
All told it was a fantastic evening, and a welcome introduction to Tower of Power’s immensely enjoyable and expansively instrumental sound. The group wrapped up with one of its top numbers in “What Is Hip” Scott playing up the crowd with a ton of “let-me-hear-you-say-yeah’s,” and the band’s brassy crescendo mixing with the raucous applause.
TOP dropped it down a notch for its encore, with “You’re Still a Young Man,” and the roiling, gyrating crowd lapsed into gentle sways and steps, couples dancing closely in the aisles and in their seats.
Hats off to the timeless Tower of Power for delivering an inspired and high-energy performance at elevation, and our fervent wishes to Garibaldi and van Wageningen for a speedy recovery, from everybody here at Tahoe Onstage.
Related story: A look at the second night of Tower of Power at Lake Tahoe. LINK