|Tower of Power
Ronnie Scott’s, March 2012
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved. © 2012.
Tower of Power
(Ronnie Scott’s, Friday 9 March, first house; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)
Tower of Power, the ten-piece soul-jazz outfit from Oakland, California play as tight as a chain-link fence, with not a weak link in sight. These shows had sold out months ago, the atmosphere was sizzling, the sense of enjoyment communicated from the stand was infectious. On the opening night of their European tour they just blew Ronnie’s away.
Bandleader Emilio Castillo, the band’s co-founder with Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka, one of the band’s four original members onstage, had fulsome praise for the successful turn-round at Ronnie’s. “On our last visit, nobody showed up!”
Tower of Power started out in 1968 with their roots in the 50s and 60s soul they grew up with, and the driving funk of James Brown and Sly Stone (“Me and Rocco would sneak into Frenchie’s and stay for six sets a night. No one could match Sly’s craft and substance …,” recounts Castillo.) They dropped in and out of the Fillmore scene, have issued over 20 albums, and have endured, through music’s passing fads and fashions, to brightly burn the flame for their eye-wateringly tight arrangements, meticulous timing, and classy songwriting. They tell their story HERE.
This incarnation of the band is rammed with seasoned musicians keeping the flame burning with verve, passion and fluency. ‘Doc’ Kupka, who provides the throaty baritone in the chunky, thudding bass strata that underpins the whole show, reckons it’s one of their best ever.
They make the old songs sound as though they were written just yesterday. Over the years the band has perfected the dynamics of the horn and rhythm sections with vocals, guitar and keyboards riding in and out of that fast-flowing river of funk. They never sit back on a riff or an overlong solo. As Larry Braggs, their lead vocalist for 12 years puts it, “… it’s like a freight train out there. If you don’t keep up, you’re gonna get run over!”
They hit the groove running with ‘Oakland Stroke’, filling Ronnie’s with pin-sharp sound balance and perfect pitch – a searing wall of brass, crisp backing vocals with a touch of falsetto, nifty dance steps thrown in.
Segueing into ‘There Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now’, Tom Politzer stepped forward to take a blistering sax solo before they generously sampled ‘You Ought to be Having Fun’ and ‘Only so Much OIl in the Ground’, all contributing to a rich helping of classics which they dipped into with great finesse all evening.
Roger Smith kept an ideal balance between his B3 Hammond and the full band with chunky, syncopated chord work, drizzled with flowing groove licks. And once Jerry Cortez was allowed to stretch out, he delivered a crunching, crawling solo – as Braggs said, “guitar players do what they want to do … that’s why we keep them in the back!” Acosta and Cracchiolo flew on trumpets, cutting the high registers with razor sharp precision.
They wound the pace down for a couple of numbers, Castillo’s thoughtful ballad, ‘Remember Love’, early on, and the mellow ‘ Below us All the City Lights’, which had Smith shifting to Yamaha electric piano in its softly crafted soul mood.
Castillo’s smile said it all as Prestia and Garibaldi ratcheted it up with a mesh of pummelling bass and claggy drum beats, Cortez threw in another grinding electric solo, and the three saxes blazed away in unison on ‘Walking Up Hip Street’, before all but guitar and drum were left onstage for Smith’s scintillating Hammond solo.
“The eternal question … What … Is … Hip?”, Tower’s anthemic anchor number, got a fresh, trumpet focus and glowing vocal harmonies; the debt to James Brown was acknowledged as “Soul Power … gotta have it!” rang out, loud and proud, and the frontmen dropped to their knees, raising the roof, just for a few bars, with a breezy, sugary Chi-Lites sound on ‘You’re Still a Young Man’.
Is there a more finely honed soul section out there than Tower of Power? James Brown has said of them, “There’s no black group that plays my stuff as good as them.”
As opening support, the Ronnie Scott’s All-Stars for the night, Natalie Williams, Phil Robson, Pedro Segundo and Sam Burgess had a collective, bright spring in their step, as they settled the Friday night audience into the right frame of mind, and set in place ideal foundations and preparations for the Tower.
Emilio Castillo – bandleader, 2nd tenor sax, vocals
Stephen “Doc” Kupka – baritone sax
Rocco Prestia – bass
David Garibaldi – drums
Larry Braggs – lead vocalist
Roger Smith – keyboards
Tom Politzer – lead tenor sax
Adolfo Acosta – trumpet
Jerry Cortez – guitar
Sal Cracchiolo – trumpet & trombone