Spot the bass player. Spot the drummer. Spot the horn player. Easily done at almost any gig on the planet where these US soul legends rock up. Not just on the stage…..
This was the case last night for Tower of Power’s first date of three UK shows, kicking off at Birmingham Town Hall and heading on to Manchester and then London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall. Many local and regional pro musicians out in force to catch their heroes in action.
The band have been blowing up a storm for more than 50 years, formed by sax men and main songwriters Stephen “Doc” Kupka and the outfit’s esteemed leader Emilio Castillo in Oakland, California in 1968. Emilio, or Mimi as his friends in the band know him, started his own soul band at the age of 17, after he was smitten with a tight local band called Spiders.
On the weekend of July 4th 1968, along comes young Steve Kupka and tells Emilio he likes his band, but there was something missing. “The horn section needs a little bottom”, and he just happened to play baritone sax!
As Emilio told the crowd in Birmingham last night, after a few notes on this huge saxophone at this late 60s audition, this cool and funky guy was in – and they have been inseparable partners in musical crime ever since. They played their very first gig together on 13th August 1968. That bottom end from the funky doctor’s baritone sax is an integral part of their amazing sound.
The 2019 line-up boasts three originals. EC, “The Doc” and drummer David Garibaldi. Emilio got it dead right when he introduced the band members last night – and said no one else could fill that drum stool like DG. “Often imitated, never emulated”. True dat. With original bassist Francis “Rocco” Prestia, there was no finer rhythm section on this earth, for me. So deep in the pocket. A groove machine to die for.
Sadly, due to a series of serious health setbacks, Rocco came off the road at the end of last year and was replaced by his dep’, Marc van Wageningen as a permanent member on bass duties. But last night, neither bass player was present.
Mark was taken ill in Germany a few days before the UK leg of the tour, diagnosed with pneumonia. He missed two gigs in Germany and the Birmingham show, and is in a German hospital. Once he is fit enough and docs give him the all-clear, he will resume the tour.
But with zero notice, Hammond and keyboard player Roger Smith stepped in (literally) to take over bass duties, playing the bass lines with his feet on the pedals of his Hammond.I cannot pat my head and rub my belly, so how you do sing backing vocals, play organ and keyboards and bass all at the same time? With no advance warning, either. He did a brilliant job.
Mark was in a coma for eight weeks when he and drummer Garibaldi were hit by a train in America, as they walked across tracks outside a venue the band were playing. It was touch and go if he or David would survive. Both did and are usually fit and well. Until Mark’s bout of pneumonia. Rocco also ended up in a German hospital on a previous tour with serious health issues. Is there a curse of the bass players in this band?
The blistering five-piece horn section were mighty as usual and lifted the roof off the Town Hall. The best horn section out there, bar none. You can quote me…..
When I spoke with Emilio recently on the phone at his Arizona home, he told me their latest singer, Marcus Scott from Memphis was one of the best they had ever had. If not THE best. Believe me, this band have had the cream of soul singers fronting them across five decades. My faves are Brent Carter (1994 – 2001) and Lenny Williams (1972 – 1975).
Emilio told me I would agree with him when I heard Marcus for the first time live. After the gig, I caught up with EC and told him to his face……….he wasn’t wrong. This young guy can saannng! Huge potential to grow into the part, especially if the writers craft material around his voice.
He likes his high end of the register falsetto and soul screamin’, and often goes off on vocal runs and acrobatics. Impressive and for most of the material, he’s a great fit. But for me, he is in danger of overcooking that side of his vocal talent a tad.
That said, on one of the band’s trademark tracks, “You’re Still A Young Man”, Marcus gave us the best vocal on that song I have heard in the circa 10 times I have seen this band live since the 80s. His control and the emotion he tapped into was spine tingling and world class.
The whole band were firing on all cylinders on that song last night. You could have heard a pin drop. From their 1972 album on Warner Bros, “Bump City”, and the first song Kupka and Castillo wrote together, back in 1969. Probably the best version I have heard of this song, tonight.
The line-up is Emilio Castillo on 2nd tenor sax, Doc Kupka on baritone sax, David Garibaldi on drums, Roger Smith on Hammond and keyboards (and tonight also on bass pedals), Jerry Cortez on guitar, Tom Politzer on 1st tenor sax, Adolofo Acosta on trumpet, Sal Cracchiolo on trumpet and flugel horn and Marcus Scott on lead vocals.
They did just over 90 minutes, 15 songs in the main set, plus a medley of abbreviated James Brown tracks. An encore of just the one song, “Souled Out”, the title of the band’s great 1995 album on Sony.
They delivered the favourites, or most of them. But 1973’s classic “Soul Vaccination” was missing, which was probably the only time they have dropped that live staple in the years I have been seeing them live.
But of course, they gave us their biggest tune, “What Is Hip”, to close the main set, before the encore. Penned by Emilio Castillo, Stephen Kupka and David Garibaldi. A track from 1973 that never grows old and last night, all was as it should be. Sounding mighty.
Opening proceedings with “We Came To Play”, title track of their 1978 album produced by Steve Cropper. Straight into “Soul With A Capital S”, opening cut on the 1993 album “T.O.P.”. Tonight, they added a snatch of “Oakland Stroke”.
Back to 1976 for song three, “You Ought To Be Having Fun”, from the 1976 album “Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’’ Us Now”. A deep cut and nice to hear it played live again.
When I asked Emilio Castillo to name his personal favourite songs from the band’s massive back catalogue recently, his first choice was the next song they did in the set. “Only So Much Oil In The Ground”, from the album “Urban Renewal” which dropped in 1974. Emilio naming that as his favourite Tower of Power album.
A plug for their latest album “Soul Side Of Town” next, and the title track. They did this one when they appeared on “Later…with Jools Holland” last year on BBC TV. Good song. It is a very strong album (on Mack Avenue Records) and has some great songs on it. Tonight’s version dug deep for the groove and Marcus Scott turned in a real top end vocal. They did two more from the new record tonight…
“Do You Like That?” is a lovely song with a great hook, and on the record it is bathed in lush strings emulating Gene Page’s trademark sound, that leads me back to the Philly Sound. A song that sounds like it should have Gamble and Huff’s name on the credits, and Gene Page as the string arranger. Castillo and Mark Dolin are the writers, and Marcus Scott makes the song his own.
Also from the current record, the infectious “Stop”, where Marcus incites the entire crowd, including the posh seats upstairs to chant “Stop It”, as Tower of Power’s newest vocal recruits. Penned by guitarist Jerry Cortez and Emilio Castillo. Can hear this one being covered by many in the future.
Three from back in the day, lifted from the 1975 album “In The Slot” next, beginning with the first ballad of the night, “As I Surely Stand Here”, which sadly many in the all-standing stalls used as a backdrop to chatter and check their phones. Arseholes.
Then the mid-tempo cut “You’re So Wonderful, So Marvellous” which Marcus dedicated to a young girl of about 11 at the barrier called Helen, and a young woman called Matilda also in the crowd.
A killer choice from that same album, “On The Serious Side” has such a great groove and unique time signature. The horns and the rhythm section were well at it tonight on this one. Missed Rocco’s bass skills, but Roger doing a sterling job with his two feet. Great to hear it again. Penned by The Doc and Emilio. They stuck with that same album and also gave us “Drop It In The Slot”.
After their sparkling rendition of “Still A Young Man”, one of the finest ballads I have ever heard, it’s time for T.O.P’s cherished funk tune “ Diggin’ On James Brown” from “Souled Out”. Emilio takes growling lead vocal on this one, while Marcus provides backing vocals.
“Star Time”, a tribute to James Brown and four abbreviated JB tracks, glued together as a medley, comes from the 2009 “Great American Songbook” album. “Mother Popcorn”, Brown’s single from 1969 was the diamond in the crown tonight in this medley. Marcus Scott on fire vocally, and his squeals and screams channelling the late Godfather of Soul, in glorious style. Larry Braggs was the lead singer in the band back in ’09, but Marcus makes this stuff his own in 2019.
Back to 1973 and their self-titled album for the next track, “So Very Hard To Go”, the penultimate number of the main set. Marcus shining on lead vocal. Then it’s time to ask “the eternal question”: What Is Hip? to close the set, before their encore number.
The legendary soul band from California, doing their thing for 50 + years are showing no signs of stopping or losing that star quality. The bad news: They only have three UK shows on this tour. Boo hoo.
But the good news: Emilio revealed that they cut 28 extra songs during the sessions for the current album, and those tracks will appear on a new album that is ready to go and slated for release by the end of this year. Yaaaay…
Wee mention of the support band, UK nine-piece brass band outfit Young Pilgrims. They entertained with a quirky 40-minute set, some of which was watched by Emilio Castillo stood side stage. Energetic and good fun. Might want to cut the rambling banter between songs when it is someone else’s gig, and just play the music. But an outfit with potential and worth checking out.
- Tower of Power play Manchester 02 Ritz tonight, Wednesday 29th May 2019 and London’s Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 30th May 2019. North Sea Jazz Festival in July 2019.
Words & pix: Simon Redley