When the 10 members of Tower of Power were in place behind Bob Boilen's desk, strategically positioned around the band's famous five-piece horn section, their first collective blast three beats into the sound check literally made the video crew jump. It was more a force of nature than a sound, and an impressive display of the "five fingers operating as one hand" concept of band cohesiveness.
From the group's beginning in Oakland in 1968, its soul disciples stood out from the peace-and-love scene in the San Francisco Bay. Their dedication to the horn-driven soul heard on recordings from the Stax and Atlantic record labels evolved to such a sophisticated level as to make the Tower of Power Horns an entity unto themselves. Eventually artists as diverse as Santana, the Grateful Dead and even Elton John enlisted them to give their music an authentic connection to the scene.
I have to confess that this show was mostly a labor of self-indulgent love, since I've been a fan since about 1972. So it was a joy to listen to the unmistakable sounds of my youth as the band delivered both "What Is Hip" and "So Very Hard to Go" with so much vitality, it sounded as if they were just written last week. During the performance of the title track from their new album, "The Soul Side of Town," the playing, the passion and the precision remains unchanged after all the years.
1968 was one hell of a year musically, as we've seen from this year's many anniversary celebrations of albums, events and bands. Add Tower of Power to that shortlist of artists for whom that moment was an early rehearsal for what would become a five decade career. A band this big will inevitably have some members come and go, but it's important to note that the original songwriting nucleus of bari saxophonist Stephen "Funky Doctor" Kupa and bandleader/tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo continue to write and perform, as does original drummer David Garibaldi.
I want to write that the band has become an institution. But that conjures images of stuffy old men looking down professorially on youthful funksters, occasionally showing them how it was done in a long-lost golden era. Instead, Tower of Power remains as vital and full of life-affirming funk and soul, if not more, as they were in 1968. The band's dedication, hard work and connection to us long-time fans prove that a good idea is timeless. If you need proof, just watch this video.
Congrats, fellas. It's been a very soulful 50 years.
- "On the Soul Side of Town"
- "So Very Hard to Go"
- "What Is Hip?"
Producers: Felix Contreras, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Maia Stern, Becky Harlan, CJ Riculan; Production Assistant: Catherine Zhang; Photo: Samantha Clark/NPR.