Tower of Power is a well-oiled soul and funk machine that delivers the goods time after time.
It has been laying down the “Oakland grease” for more than 49 years. The song writing skills of Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka rival Lennon and McCartney in the soul genre. With 27 albums and numerous Top 40 hits, TOP leaves an unsurpassed legacy.
The band packed South Shore Room at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe for a two-night stint, and I was lucky enough to attend both shows. Friday night was sensational, but Saturday night was exceptional. At 6,200 feet, it takes a day to get acclimated.
They hit the stage running Saturday with “I Like Your Style,” and the horns section are in rare form. New singer Marcus Scott chats up the crowd for a moment than TOP hits us with “Ain’t Nothing Stopping Us Now,” “You Ought to be Having Fun” and “So Much Oil in the Ground” with a blistering Hammond B3 organ solo by Roger Smith. The horns come in at the end of the solo, bringing it to a fever pitch as the crowd roars. Roger was a South Shore local for many years, performing at the old Christiana Inn with Tahoe’s own Trey Stone. Side note: Stone played with Tower for some 40 shows.
Scott then calls for Herman Matthews on drums to kick off “Can’t You See” with a solo intro. It’s time for Jerry Cortez to shine on guitar. His tone on his Gibson 335 is incredible. Bandleader Castillo heralds him as TOP’s best guitarist ever.
Next up “Mimi” takes the mic for “You Got to Funkifize.” His gravelly voice suits this tune perfectly and the groove is infectious. Tom “Big Love” Politzer takes the solo on tenor sax and stays true to the recording. Castillo tells us Politzer gives the best hugs, as they embrace, hence the nickname “Big Love.”
Castillo gives a little history on the band and introduces the young frontman Scott, 24, who adds a youthful exuberance to the lineup. He hails from Memphis, known for its rich history of soul singers such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas and Eddie Floyd, who brought us the R&B standard “Knock on Wood.” TOP has a legacy of great singers, from Rick Stevens to Lenny Williams to Larry Braggs. They are big shoes to fill and Scott is on his way to do just that.
Next up is a soulful ballad called “Just When You Start Making It.” Scott brings his “A” game to this song and just nails it. His voice is reminiscent of the great Lenny Williams. A beautiful song with Politzer’s sax fills complementing Scott’s amazing vocals. Roger Smith takes a solo over a 6/8 jazz feel segment of the song adding that extra magic.
Scott talks to the ladies about “their men messin’ up” as the band breaks into “Don’t Change Horses.” Jerry Cortez stays true to the recorded solo but manages to keep it fresh. At this point Scott tasks the band to bring it down so he and Smith and he do a call and response with a gospel feel. Scott then calls in “The Herminator” on drums and then Cortez on guitar still with the gospel feel, Scott’s voice searing over the top. They return to the groove and out.
Time for a “Soul Vaccination.” This is one of the funkiest tunes in their catalog. Politzer gives a Maceo Parker-like solo. Kupka, “The Funky Doctor,” does his obligatory funky shake dance and hits those low notes on the baritone sax as his adoring fans go crazy. And in a rare moment, Rocco Prestia takes a bass solo, funky, in the pocket and all Rocco. As I am a bass player, this was a momentous experience.
“This Time It’s Real” is next in the set, a swinging tune and one of their biggest hits. Doc was feeling it and did another little dance.
Castillo is back on the mic and takes this time bring us up to date on the tragic accident involving drummer David Garibaldi and Marc van Wageningen, a substitute bassist. They were hit by a train on the way to a gig last month. Van Wageningen remains hospitalized in intensive care, and Garibaldi is recovering at home.
On to the introductions: Adolfo Acosta (trumpet/flugelhorn), Sal Cracchiolo (trumpet), Stephen “Doc” Kupka (baritone sax/lead song writer), Tom Politzer (first tenor sax) Roger Smith (Hammond B3/ keyboards), Herman Matthews (drums), Rocco Prestia (bass), Jerry Cortez (guitar), Marcus Scott (lead vocalist) and last, but not least, Emilio Castillo (tenor sax and band leader).
Castillo holds onto the mic and the band pays homage to the great James Brown with their tune “Still Diggin’ on James Brown” on then into a JB medley. The audience is on its feet and TOP owns the room.
Time to slow it down with “So Very Hard to Go,” another of their big hits. Acosto offered up a beautiful flugelhorn solo.
On to the rhetorical “What Is Hip.” Anyone left sitting down are now on their feet. Acosta delivers another tremendous solo.
Continuing the groove, it’s time for some “Soul Power,” another James Brown tune. The audience chants along with fists raised in the air. Smith and Politzer are just jammin’ out. Smith begins to take liberties with the arrangement calling out different changes to Prestia and Politzer. Who knew Tower of Power is a jam band? They build up the music with an ascension that creates tension and then provides a great release.
The crowd is on its feet shouting for more and TOP does not disappoint. The encore is their hit “You’re Still a Young Man.” Couples come closer together and the room is filled with love.
As Castillo pointed out, TOP is known for having the greatest horn section in the world but it’s the rhythm section that drives this band. What impresses me the most is their level of musicianship. Although TOP is first and foremost a soul/ funk band you will find elements of jazz, Latin and even rock in its music. Their musicianship is unsurpassed. They are able to express themselves within the confines of the songs. Sometimes they give you a totally improvised solo and at other times you hear the familiar melodies from the recordings. Don’t miss the opportunity to see Tower of Power when the band comes to your town.
-Art Rodriguez is a South Shore musician and educator. He plays bass with Mudd Bonz blues band and various other projects
-Related story: What is hip — Tower of Power back down to the nightclub. LINK