Edward McGee - lead vocals; Lenny Pickett - tenor and alto saxophone, clarinet, flute; Emilio Castillo - tenor saxophone, vocals; Stephen Kupka - baritone saxophone; Greg Adams - trumpet, flugelhorn; Mic Gillette - trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, vocals; Chester Thompson - keyboards, vocals; Bruce Conte - guitar, vocals; Victor Conte - bass; Ron Beck - drums
Beginning as the Motowns in 1968, Oakland's Tower Of Power have become one of the most enduring of all the California bands, surviving numerous personnel changes over the past four decades. Throughout its impressive history, the primary songwriters, Emilio Castillo and Stephen "Doc" Kupka, have remained at the core, fueling this high-energy horn-based band. Unlike many of their contemporaries who divided songwriting and arranging credits, Tower Of Power further split up the responsibilities. Saxophonists Castillo and Kupka wrote the majority of the music, the lead vocalists often wrote the lyrics, trumpeter Greg Adams handled horn arrangements, and their legendary lead sax player, Lenny Pickett, took the most adventurous solos.
Originally signed to Bill Graham's San Francisco label, where they released their debut album in 1970, Tower Of Power signed with major label Warner Brothers a year or so later where they released six of their most popular albums between 1972 and 1976, despite numerous changes in personnel. After fulfilling their Warner Brothers contract, the group went through another personnel change and signed with Epic/Columbia, where they released 1978's We Came To Play, a somewhat erratic album that still contained the essential ingredients of punchy horn charts, exuberant vocals, and funky high energy instrumental support. Shortly before this recording, the band performed four intimate shows at New York City's Bottom Line, where the close proximity of the audience and the intimacy of the venue brought out the best in what this newest Tower Of Power lineup had to offer.
On this fourth and final show of the two-night run, the group wastes no time cranking up the energy, opening with the propulsive funk trifecta of "Soul Vaccination," a Castillo/Kupka classic from their debut album into keyboardist Chester Thompson's "Squib Cakes," culminating in the title track from their next album, We Came To Play. This opening sequence serves as a condensed historical overview of the group's unique style and sound, touching on the 1970 album, the 1974 album, right up to new material for the 1978 album in the first 15 minutes of the performance. "This Time It's Real," the hit single from the groups self-titled 1973 album and then "Down To The Nightclub," one of the most popular songs from their 1972 album, Bump City follows with the band in tight form.
A second preview of the forthcoming Tower Of Power album is next with Castillo and Kupka's "Yin-Yang Thang," a sort of fusion flavored R&B number that precedes one of their biggest and most recognizable hits, "So Very Hard To Go." The band's lead vocalist, Edward McGee, continues in the soulful style of his predecessors, all of whom owed a heavy debt to Otis Redding.
With the band totally cranked up and the audience ready to groove, they again deliver a triple play of top-notch funk. This begins with the frantic "Oakland Stroke" into "You Ought To Be Havin' Fun" and this time culminates into an explosive take on "What Is Hip," one of the groups most infectious songs, much to the audience's delight. For the set closer, the band thoroughly stretches out into a 20-minute workout on "Knock Yourself Out," another key track from the 1970 album, East Bay Grease. This expansive exercise allows each of the horn players to solo, especially Lenny Pickett who dominates the first 10 minutes. Following brief spotlights on the other members of the horn section, a fantastic jam ensures, propelled by organ, guitar, bass, and drums. They hit on a high-quality groove that eventually dissolves into deep space courtesy of Chester Thompson's keyboard arsenal. This 20-minute exploration leaves the New York City audience howling for more.
The band obliges by returning for a double encore of "Still A Young Man," the major hit from their 1972 Bump City album, followed by a deliciously funked-up cover of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "(To Say The Least) You're The Most," which is a blast in every sense of the word.