Review & photos by Junkman
The phrase “Funky Christmas” has been used to describe many aspects of the holiday season. Like a lot of other words in the English language, the word “funky” can take on various meanings, depending on how it’s used, both negatively as well as positive. When it applies to the legendary band Tower of Power, “funky” is synonymous with having a great time, and dancing to some revved up soul music that make your feet and body feel like they are set free to express yourself uncontrollably, as your ears and eyes are doing the same.
Celebrating their 55th year as a band, Tower of Power brought their “Holiday and Hits Tour” to the beautiful Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, as their last stop before taking a rare break for the holidays. This 10-member band is constantly touring, much more so than many bands half their size and ages, and still bring what it takes for a memorable showing night in and night out. They have even released a new holiday-themed EP, entitled “It’s Christmas” just in time for the season.
A festive crowd filled the 1,800-seat center, and festive lights and decorations, including wreaths and lighted Christmas trees, adorned the stage. Soon the lights dimmed and the familiar intro of “Ladies and Gentlemen…from Oakland California…the East Bay Kings of Soul…Tower of Power” blasted out of the PA system. The opening number, “We Came To Play,” said it all. Led by founding member, saxophonist Emilio Castillo, TOP got things going in a hurry.
The stop-start tempo of “Soul With Capitol S” featured long-time member Stephen “The Funky Doctor” Kupka leading the famous horn section with his baritone sax, supplying the hypnotic and toe-tapping bottom end. Kupka is quite a character onstage and a huge presence with his ever-present fedora, and thick glasses, as he bobs and weaves throughout the show while turning out mighty blasts with his low-end horn.
The TOP horn section have appeared with many other acts over the years, on records, as well as live, and includes the fabulous Adolfo Acosta on trumpet and flugelhorn, Santa hat-adorned trumpeter Dave Richards, who also doubles on trombone, long-time lead saxophonist Tom “Big Love” Politzer, and the aforementioned saxophonist Castillo, who also sings lead on a few numbers.
The band also includes keyboardist Roger Smith, bassist Marc Van Wageningen, guitarist Jerry Cortez, and drummer David Garibaldi, who first joined the band in 1970, and has, as Castillo described later in the evening, “been yelling at us for over 50 years!” Garibaldi really is the cog that drives the wheel, and I can honestly speak for all drummers and fans of his that he truly is one of the greats, especially with his technique, which is a textbook course on how to be, as we drummers like to say, “in the pocket!”
Lead vocalist Mike Jerel, who also plays keyboards, is front and center and at one with the audience. His lovely, soulful crooning, and exciting stage presence are right in tune with a long line of TOP vocalists that have preceded him. His joyous enthusiasm shined on the wonderfully playful “You Ought To Be Having Fun” a radio hit from 1976. The fact that he also plays keyboards is a added bonus, and he was also joined by a special guest, keyboardist Joe Vannelli (brother of popular singer Gino Vannelli) who sat in with the band.
A touching version of the holiday classic “Sliver Bells” was the first Christmas song of the night, before the band got back to the business of “funkin it up” with the early 1970s TOP classics “You’ve Got To Funkifize” as well as always enjoyable “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle Of A Stream)” with its irresistible chorus of “Giddy-Up, Giddy Up, Hi-Ho Silver” chant, that also spotlights great interplay between guitarist Cortez, and drummer Garibaldi’s fabulous drumming.
A funky “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and a soul-inspired “Oh Holy Night” which featured Emilio Castillo on vocals, accompanied by Jerel and Roger Smith’s soothing harmonies, led to Castillo joyfully speaking about his blessed life since becoming sober, and he introduced the band members, one by one, and added an amusing anecdote for each one. The band then ripped into “Diggin’ On James Brown” from their 1995 “Souled Out” release that featured the band rockin’ some synchronized dance moves while including bits of JB’s “It’s A New Day” and “Mother Popcorn,” as well as “Star Time” and “I Got the Feeling” during the songs middle section. This one is always a showstopper and shows that they can deliver as tight a performance as ever.
Tower of Power pulled in another holiday number, Castillo referred to it as his favorite, a very special version of the late Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” that really brought the spirit of the holiday to the forefront. It’s a beautifully moving song, and TOP has brought a new light to it, with their combination of talents. It was followed by one of their biggest hits, the Top 20 single “So Very Hard To Go” from 1973, that had most of the crowd singing along.
For the final number of the set, the band brought up former band member Sal Cracchiolo as well as Emilio Castillo’s cousin Roger Garcia, Jr. to join the band on trumpet. Singer Mike Jerel addressed the crowd to tell him the “answer to the eternal question? The answer, of course, and enthusiastically screamed back to the band was, of course “What Is Hip?” This song is undoubtedly the band’s most recognizable song and significant in its appeal to TOP’s fans as being the ultimate funk-horn danceable song. You have to fight yourself to sit down for this one!
The stops and starts from Garibaldi behind his drum kit led to the call and response from the band members as Van Wageningen’s rolling bass lines drove the song to new heights. At one point, Castillo led the audience to scream “Soul Power” before Politzer took center stage for a fantastic sax solo. This song is serious “funk gumbo” as there is so much added to the tasty mix, and the band has been doing variations on this one since it was first released, way back in 1973.
As the band left the stage at the song’s end, most of us attempted to catch our breath, as I’m sure the band was as well. They soon returned to a thunderous applause and closed out the evening with an encore performance of what Castillo explained was “the first song I ever wrote” the wonderful soul influenced ballad “You’re Still a Young Man” a huge hit for Tower of Power from 1972’s “Bump City” recording. During the song’s lyric “Down on my knees” vocalist Jerel did just that, and sang from a kneeling position, much to the delight of the fans. The Tower of Power horns, particularly the trumpets, were on point, and provided the song’s coda, which is always a treat to hear and still gives me “goosebumps” after all these years. At the song’s end, the band bowed, and waved and Castillo wished everyone a “Happy Holiday.”
The crowd stood and applauded and made their way to the exits, grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. The ”funk” was in the hearts of all who attended, that’s for sure, and many were seen dancing their way to the parking lot. As a long-time fan of the band, I cannot wait to see them again. I will continue to plead the case to get Tower of Power inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I truly believe that they are long overdue. The band picks it back up and will hit the road again in 2024. My thanks to those that made it possible to attend such an enjoyable show. The band’s spirit is in me. Have a Happy Holiday and a funky New Year y’all!