Tower of Power celebrates its half-century milestone in high style with 50 Years of Funk & Soul. Rather than a de rigeur rehash of past glories, of which there are admittedly more than a few, the band documents the expansion of its personnel and repertoire on a colorfully-designed and extensively annotated two-CD plus DVD package. Little wonder a group that always sounded larger than its number spans the expanse of the Fox Theater stage in Oakland CA as pictured on the back cover.
The photo mirrors the stylistic ambition of these June 2018 shows. Bandleader and saxophonist Emilio Castillo helms the well-honed modern line-up featuring co-founder Stephen “Doc” Kupka on baritone sax (co-writer with Castillo of the bulk of the new originals), longtime drummer David Garibaldi, and lead vocalist Marcus Scott. The presence of founding bassist Francis “Rocco” Prestia, who passed away in September 2020, carries the only nostalgic tinge to the proceedings (besides the raucous testimonials from fans included in the bonus features on a double-sided DVD).
Nearly two hours of invigorating funk and earthy balladry make up Live At The Fox Theater. The setlist covers the band’s history, from classic hits “So Very Hard to Go,” and “What is Hip?” to equally rousing favorites like “Stop” and “Do You Like That?” from recent albums, respectively 2018’s Soul Side of Town and Step Up, released two years later. In an enlarged lineup, including two extra horns and a ten-piece string section, Tower of Power lives up to its name; the group functions as an object lesson in taut precision during “On the Serious Side, ” while positing itself as the definition of self-discipline on this sumptuous rendition of the quieter but no less emotive “So Very Hard to Go.”
The rhythmic staccato bursts of horns that subsequently unfurl into tuneful melody could be no other group than ToP. It is, in fact, redolent of an altogether natural chemistry, one that allows the incorporation of select alumni on 50 Years of Funk and Soul, including saxophonist Lenny Pickett (musical director of the Saturday Night Live band) and keyboardist Chester Thompson (who went on to join Santana). It may well be an only left-handed compliment(s) to praising this veteran unit for what they don’t do, but that perspective happens to be unusually illuminating here: the only nod to stage production is the banner hanging high as a backdrop—no hi-tech distractions!–while the aforementioned lead singer/frontman refuses to engage in any unctuous crowd-pleasing or vocal histrionics.
As much as this triple-disc set does justice to the Tower of Power legacy, the ensemble’s willingness and ability to stretch itself augurs as well for its future. There is no use of the word ‘deluxe’ anywhere in this multi-fold digipak, on-line, or in PR literature, but perhaps there should be: it is as informative as it is colorful. Still, it’s the fundamentals that count most, and the technical aspects of the audio and video that comprise Live At The Fox Theater capture both the polish and professionalism of the performance as well as the practiced humanity at the heart of this powerhouse musical unit.