Much like “How I Met Your Mother’s” Barney Stinson’s frequent uttering of the word, the term “legendary” is overused when describing classic rock acts. But it’s not a stretch to use it when referring to the Tower of Power horn section. On Sunday night, May 18, 2014, those that arrived early enough to the San Francisco Fest at the Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix, got a brief glimpse of what makes that horn section so legendary.
Many fans that came to Ak-Chin Pavilion Sunday night to see the Steve Miller Band and Journey may not have been aware that Tower of Power has been around since 1967 and has released 17 studio albums, 7 live albums and 6 compilation albums. The legendary horn section has appeared on over 300 albums by other artists including Heart, Huey Lewis and the News, Elton John and Peter Frampton.
As the opening act of the evening’s triple bill, Tower of Power had to cram 47 years of history into a 35 minute set. Their 8 song set list chose to focus on music from their most popular years, 1973-1978. It was a good primer for those unfamiliar with Tower of Power’s work. And just in case you weren’t sure from where the band originated, a picture of the Oakland Bay Bridge, the same picture that is found on Tower of Power’s 1974 album “Back To Oakland,” served as the backdrop to the band’s stage.
Starting even a bit earlier than the stated 6:45 start time (advice to those with tickets to upcoming San Francisco Fest appearances, get there early) the band aptly announced their arrival with “We Came To Play.” New Tower of Power singer Ray Greene continued the tradition of first class singers for the group with superb vocals from the outset. His enthusiasm never waned despite having to perform for a crowd that was still trying to find their seats.
Unlike most bands, whose horn sections are relegated to the side or to the rear of the stage, the Tower of Power horn section, co-founders, Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka, Tom E. Politzer, Adolfo Acosta and Sal Cracchiolo, were at the front. Greene sang “You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun” and those onstage seemed to be, with even some choreographed moves by the horn section.
But horns alone won’t make you a bona fide funk and soul band. Tower of Power had that covered. Jerry Cortez coaxed the necessary vibe out of his guitar. David Garibaldi’s drumming was the perfect syncopation. Roger Smith’s keyboards were soulful. Another new kid on the block, Raymond McKinley consistently played the required funk bass groove.
The band had fun with “Don’t Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream).” Once again the horn section busted some moves, Cortez let loose on the guitar and Greene gave several fake endings to the song which brought out his inner preacher.
If you were one of those people who had purchased Tower of Power’s biggest selling album, the self-titled “Tower of Power” (1973), then the cobwebs might have been shaken loose as Tower of Power closed with four songs from that album. “Soul Vaccination” featured Kupka’s baritone sax solo as well as one from the tenor sax of Politzer.
“This Time It’s Real,” finally brought a few people to their feet with Greene showing off his scatting ability. Tower of Power’s highest charting single, “So Very Hard to Go,” once again highlighted the melodies created by the horn section.
The all too quick set ended with “What Is Hip?” which one person out of the 20,000 people that would eventually show up knew was “the eternal question.” Greene managed to coax a few in the audience to participate in the shout and respond “soul, power.” Once again the horn section was magnificent.
Although they came to play, Tower of Power had the misfortune of performing for people more interested in seeing Steve Miller and Journey. It was great to have Tower of Power as part of the night’s ensemble but the energy the band gave off just wasn’t being reciprocated. That’s a shame. You don’t often get to see legendary.
Set List: We Came To Play | You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun | Only So Much Oil In The Ground | Don’t Change Horses (In The Middle Of A Stream) | Soul Vaccination | This Time It’s Real | So Very Hard To Go | What Is Hip?