50 years ago, horn players and songwriters Emilio Castillo and Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka, formed a band in Oakland, California, called The Motowns, which morphed in 1970 to Tower of Power. Despite numerous changes in personnel during their long and storied career (its past members number 64), half-a-century later the legendary soul and funk aggregation are still going strong. They have been fronted by many different lead singers – most notably, Lenny Williams, in the 1970s – but now they probably have the most charismatic and athletic vocalist that they’ve ever had – Marcus Scott. The Memphis singer, whose vocal gymnastics were often out of this world, really worked the crowd into a frenzy.
Opening with the thundering ‘Soul With A Capital S,’ with its soulful call-and-response vocals, the 10-piece, horn-heavy band came across like an out-of-control juggernaut hurtling down a hill with no brakes at 100 miles per hour. At the wheel steering it was Marcus Scott, who commanded the stage like a veteran, even though he’s by far the youngest and most recent member of the band. The group served up some of their most cherished funk masterpieces from their voluminous back catalogue, including a pulsating ‘So Much Oil In The Ground,’ the frenetic ‘On The Serious Side,’ and the classic ‘Soul Vaccination.’
There were ace ballads, too, exemplified by the timeless ‘You’re Still A Young Man’ and ‘So Very Hard To Go,’ where Scott demonstrated that he possesses sensitivity as well as incredible technique. Another fan favourite, the carefree, feel-good anthem, ‘You Ought To Be Having Fun,’ was given a run out as was ‘You’re So Wonderful, So Marvellous.’ But the concert was not merely an exercise in nostalgia, as the introduction of a freshly-minted song called ‘The Soul Side Of Town,’ (taken from the group’s forthcoming new album) proved, showing that the band are looking forward as well as back. Mind you, the new song had all the ingredients of classic Tower Of Power – a killer hook, stupendous brass charts, and a groove that won’t quit.
The super-syncopated ‘Diggin’ On James Brown,’ a track recorded in the 1990s as a homage to the “Godfather Of Soul,” bookended a tribute to “Mr Dynamite,” with Scott shimmying across the stage like “Soul Brother Number One” during energised versions of Brown’s ‘It’s A New Day,’ ‘Mother Popcorn,’ and ‘There It Is.’ Scott vacated the stage to allow the band to shine on the fluid instrumental, ‘Squib Cakes,’ which as well as highlighting the individuals in the horn section, showcased Roger Smith on Hammond organ and Jerry Cortez on guitar.
Inevitably, the band climaxed their show with their signature song, the evergreen ‘What Is Hip.’ Characterised by an orgy of tightly-knit brass riding on a slippery groove propelled by drummer David Garibaldi and bassist Marc Van Wageningen, the song, with its instantly recognisable sound, encapsulated Tower Of Power’s unique, Oakland-inflected take on funk and soul.
Fifty years on, Tower Of Power are still at the top of their game – they might not be young men anymore, but they still play with a youthful vigour and enthusiasm. And crucially, they haven’t forgotten how to be hip. Pure dynamite.