Where: Yoshi's Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland, California
Yoshi's on the web: www.yoshis.com.
a series of sold-out shows in their hometown
Ten for ten for ten. Ten guys on the stage, their tenth sold-out show of ten, and a 10 out of 10 performance. Did I count right? Whatever. Tower of Power rocked the joint at Yoshi’s in Oakland on Wednesday, January 14, and the sold-out crowd told them how they felt, with rapturous applause after most numbers.
"TOP" as they are usually known, have been a Bay Area fixture for over 45 years now and despite many personnel changes over the years they still deliver a terrific show. Their brand of soul/funk/rock is unique.
They’re an imposing presence on stage, especially in an intimate club like Yoshi’s. The front row of horns trumpets, baritone sax, tenor saxes, and even the occasional trombone from singer Ray Greene is a sea of brass belting out syncopated rhythms, melodies and enormous chordal structures. But it doesn’t stop there, as each member of the band has a part to play. Roger Ray Smith is a pro on the Hammond organ, putting in those B3 swells when they were needed.
Tower of Power started the show with the rocking "I Like Your Style" from 1993's "T.O.P." album, and it was clear from the start that Ray Greene, who has only been singing with the band for the last 12 months, was fitting right in.
Although most of the band’s music is up-tempo funky soul and rock, they also do some pretty sweet slow numbers too. "Just When We Started Making It" from 1973's "Back To Oakland" is a beautiful love song with gorgeous overlays of those horns for which TOP is so well-known.
In fact, in the 1980s, when the band's star had gotten a little lower in the sky, the TOP horn section was so well-respected that it was hired by many studios and recording artists as a separate entity. Not really surprising. The combination of Steve "Doc" Kupka’s tall figure shock of unruly hair just kept under control by his hat and his big baritone sax is an imposing sight, not to mention sound. Co-founder Emilio Castillo, though less imposing physically, is the heart of the band, and directs everyone with subtle hand gestures. Not that they needed directing. They all seemed to be note-perfect and tight as a drum without ever looking at each other.
Many of the band’s best-loved songs were penned by Kupka and Castillo, including "You Ought To Be Having Fun" and "Ain't Nothing Stopping Us Now," from the 1976 album of the same name.
Although TOP is mainly a horn band, occasionally they allow some guitar leads to slip through. Jerry Cortez was in excellent form at Yoshi's, combining rock, blues and jazz licks into some well-constructed solos which contrasted nicely with the horns. I liked the way Castillo just stood there smiling, watching Cortez’ fingers run up and down the fretboard with a kind of "That’s my boy" look.
Although Tower Of Power is defined mainly by its horn section, they couldn’t make the sound they do without the outstanding drumming talent of David Garibaldi. Recently inducted into the Percussion Hall Of Fame, Garibaldi has a unique style that weaves in and out of the funky rhythms, sometimes on the beat with the horns, sometimes in between, but always exciting. The other half of the back row is of course the legendary Francis "Rocco" Prestia, who unfortunately is still recovering from a kidney transplant. But he was ably replaced at Yoshi’s by Raymond McKinley.
There were some standout trumpet solos from Sal Cracchiolo and Adolpho Acosta, but the soaring sounds of Tom Politzer’s tenor sax really put the icing on the cake in numbers such as "Soul Vaccination" and "So Very Hard To Go."
Yoshi’s provided an excellent venue for the band, with just enough room on the stage, wonderful acoustics from every seat, and the opportunity for Greene to jump down and mingle with the audience during some numbers.
Of course no TOP gig would be complete without their jazz/funk anthem, "What Is Hip?" and they did not disappoint. Greene posed the eternal question and the band answered, letting the solo tenor sax and guitar off their tethers for some extended jamming. TOP has such an extensive catalog to choose from, but it was gratifying to hear them finish with the classic "Don’t Change Horses In The Middle Of A Stream" from their 1973 album. As the title of that album says, they were "Back To Oakland," and it was like they’d never left.
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at email@example.com