Tower of Power horns still ignite the band’s jazzy rhythm and blues. (Timothy Cox Photo)
By Timothy Cox
Editor ‘n Chief
Seventies Soul Report
ALEXANDRIA, VA — It was a cold Wednesday night on Nov. 16, 2022, but a tad over 500 SRO (Standing Room Only) folks squeezed into the tight but comfortable confines of the Birchmere Music Hall to witness one of America’s still-existent and still great big bands – the Tower of Power.
With origins dating back to 1968, the band celebrated its 50th year in 2018. With their ability to blend funk, jazz, soul and some big band – ToP has managed to survive these many decades, while similar bands of its heyday, the 1970s, have dissolved onto oblivion.
Band co-founders Emilio “Mimi” Castillio and Steven “The Doctor” Kupka, are still the masterminds of this fine instrumental outfit. Proudly hailing from the East Bay neighborhoods of Oakland and San Francisco, these northern California gents created a uniquely soulful sound that has easily withstood the test of time.
Their Nov. 16, mid-week performance in Alexandria, Va. in suburban DC, attracted a throng of dedicated ToP fans, obviously those who have followed the band for many moons, since the late sixties and early 1970s. Importantly on this night, “Mimi,” introduced us to the band’s brand newest lead singer Mike Jerel, fresh from the popular network TV show ‘The Voice.’
Jerel is a super-talent. In addition to his multi-octave vocals, he plays trumpet and keyboards up-front, onstage. Stop! He’s almost too good. His vocals are piercingly high vs. mellow, moody and soulful. I wish they’d bring Marcus Scott back. In fact, I wish Lenny Williams would’ve never left. Why can’t he make a late-career return to the band that made him famous? Why not? It would do both he and ToP good honors to have Lenny back up-front as the lead vocals. I interviewed Lenny a few years ago, and it just didn’t seem like he was very interested in returning to his old glory group. He’s doing just fine as a solo singer.
So be it.
Setlist used by Tower of Power for the November 16th Performance
Meanwhile, the band’s most recent lead singer, Marcus Scott, was replaced after suffering from “lead singer’s disease,” according to the band’s longtime original drummer, David Garibaldi, Too bad, because the Memphis-born Scott filled the void and came very close to the stylings of the great Lenny Williams,
This reporter was fortunate enough to hangout backstage with Mimi and the boys, thanks to saxophonist Tommy Politzer, who led me backstage in order to meet my high school band drum-kit hero – the great Garibaldi. From 1972 thru ’76, David was my favorite drummer and provided me with the rhythmic soundtrack I still utilize to this day, on my own gigs. And not thru Youtube or computer graphics, but via my 12-inch LPs, 45-singles and stereophonic headphones.
DG was very humble and appreciative of my appreciation of him.
Back to the show: ToP played many of the familiar hits that often brought parts of the audience to their feet. Their setlist consisted of the following ToP favorites, like:”Your Still a Young Man,” “Only So Much Oil (in the ground), “Don’t Change Horses,” “Soul Vaccination,” “Maybe It’ll Rub Off,” “Squib Cakes” and the ultimate question, “What Is Hip?”
The encore,”Say the Least, You’re the Most,” was a surprise icing to a wonderful night of funk n soul.
Thankfully, the ToP horns are just as tight and funky as they were back in the day. Old school fans will recall when Mimi and nem recorded with Larry Graham and Graham Central Station. “Feel the Need” quickly comes to mind.
I personally also recall playing ‘This Time It’s Real” prior to our morning announcements as a sophomore at Beaver Falls Area Senior High School near Pittsburgh.
As a music critic, I cannot shirk my duties and not reveal the band’s apparent weaknesses. While ToP fans appreciate the group’s obvious love for the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, to me, this is where ToP’shortfalls are highly exposed.
The ill fit arises during their JB Medley. The ToP-penned “Still Be Diggin on James Brown,” works fine, and is now a welcome staple for the band’s performances. However, tunes like “Soul Power” lacks in the grit ‘n power compared to the original funk ‘n swagger from them JBs, ala Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, St. Clair Pinckney, Pee Wee Ellis, Melvin Parker and Bootsy Collins.
Perhaps the horn parts are just too precise, while the JB horns always provided a lil more of a natural groovey swing compared with ToP’s brilliant intensity and exactness.
On another level, but similar – ToP does a brilliant version of “Loveland,” as originally performed by Charles ‘Wright & the 103rd Street Rhythm Band, another Northern California soul group from the 1970s.
Therefore – Hey Mimi, you may wanna consider adding “Loveland” to your setlist for upcoming gigs in place of one of the JB covers. Drummer James Gadsen, original lead singer of “Loveland,” would be mighty proud to hear his jam being played by you all.
(Editor’s Note: I personally wanted to give shout-outs to Bill and Becky Nickolay of Daly City/Millbrae, California. The couple flew from Cali to celebrate the ToP show with their longtime friend, Beverly Gonzludo of Stafford, Va. Ms. BG, a brain cancer survivor, joined her husband and children to celebrate the show with their friends Bill and Becky for this special evening with the Tower of Power band. Also, a special shoutout to Doctor MP Kesselring who was unable to make the trip, due to required surgery on her left foot. Get well soon, Dr. Patty.)