Just off the 101 in Agoura Hills, on one of those streets Midwesterners call a frontage road, sits a modest strip mall from the 1950s. Instead of big box stores or name brands, you’ll find purveyors of sewing supplies, organic pet food, a blind and drapery store and a place called The Canyon Club. The façade is more rugged than L.A. chic – stucco and brick, dark wooden beams, coach lights. Inside is a cavernous two-story hall flanked by bars with an elevated seating area in the rear. Giant multi-pointed, luminescent stars hang from the ceiling, adding a whimsical element. This is a well-known venue for live music and comedy. Artists on their way up or down play here, and the calendar is always packed. A sampling of upcoming acts: B.B. King, Kenny Loggins, Merle Haggard, Rick Springfield, Sinbad. You get the picture.
This legendary venue – worn but serviceable – was the perfect place to see the timeless soul/funk band Tower of Power. A West Coast original, T.O.P. was founded in Oakland in the late 60s by a bunch of guys who were inspired by the rhythmic sounds emanating from Detroit, Philly and their own backyard. In fact, the East Bay has always been a fertile incubator for a diverse array of original music, and T.O.P. has that sound that conjures up visions of the gritty underbelly of the Bay Area, inhabited by streetwise guys with a sentimental side.
I’ve been a fan since high school. I acquired the Back to Oakland album in ’74; I think it was a promotional copy from the college radio station where my older brother worked. While everyone else was listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, the band geeks were drawn to any group with horns – Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis and of course the rockers Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Over the years I’ve caught Tower of Power’s shows in some unlikely places – at a little gem of a performing arts center in Brampton, Ontario in the dead of winter and on the courthouse square in Paola, Kansas on a warm summer’s evening. I knew they would soon make their annual appearance at The Canyon Club, so I bought two tickets and invited my high school buddy Robb, a trumpet player and music educator who lives in Anaheim. A savvy southern Californian, Robb was smart enough to avoid the two-hour drive (one way) and I didn’t blame him. Our 20-year-old daughter was my next choice. She’s a musician herself and inherited our appreciation for musicianship regardless of genre.
So, off we went. Arriving early because I’d read dicey reviews about the way Canyon Club accommodates general admission ticket holders, we fell in line at the door behind a guy carrying a trombone case. That’s interesting, I thought. Does this guy think he’s going to sit in with the band? No sooner had I begun pondering this than we were hustled inside, sporting our plastic wristbands.
It took a minute or so to adjust to the darkness – except for the blazing oranges and blues illuminating the performers on stage. The opening band was a group of guys who looked to be in their 20s, a wailing guitar solo, nice chord progressions, I thought, yet their style was difficult to pinpoint. Kind of bluesy, a bit reminiscent of Jeff Beck, only with whiny vocals. (Hannah later informed me their lyrics were sophomoric.)
The people watching is as good as the music. When the crowd responds positively and everyone is grooving, well, that’s magic. On this night, the clientele was made up of 50-something women with big hair and exaggerated heels drinking white wine, balding white guys showing their age and expansive weight, a few hipsters with facial hair and rakish hats, and a large
of folks in my demographic – nondescript, middle aged. At one time these people
were the youth of the nation, dancing on tables and shimmying to the sounds of
a much younger Tower of Power. They are the inoculated fans (hence the song Soul
Vaccination) who own all the records, maybe even the DVD of that live
performance on German television. They’ve seen the band at Tahoe, in Dallas,
Detroit and Boston. And Tower of Power has aged with us. Four of the band’s ten
members are original founders – well into their 60s and still going strong.
It didn’t take long to notice a weird dynamic in the room. The Canyon Club figures it can make more money by seating a couple hundred people before the show and serving an overpriced, underwhelming dinner. Dozens of tables were arrayed in the front of the room closest to the stage. Waiters with huge trays were pushing their way through the GA crowd, security (if you want to call it that) kept admonishing us to stand back and make room. It started to spoil the anticipation and became almost suffocating. Did I pay good money for this?
Shortly after 9:00, a voice offstage intoned: “Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the one and only, the original Tower of Power!” The room erupted into a combination of applause, shouting and whistling.
Tower of Power is hip-shakin’, bone-rattlin’ music, characterized by a rock-solid funk beat, scritchy rhythm guitar and bumpy bass punctuated by exuberant horn blasts. Yet very few of those at the tables stood up for the performance, which was unfortunate, because the beat is infectious. Maybe this is an illustration of how old we’ve become, I mused. Seeing the seated guests in front, leader and alto saxophonist Emilio Castillo greeted us with “How you doin’, LA? Aha. Laid back, as usual.”
These guys prove you’re never too old to groove. With a solid complement of youthful members, Tower of Power never fails to bring the energy. The first blast pins you against the wall, sets your spirit soaring and before you know it your muscles are involuntarily reacting to the beat, maybe you’re nodding your head or tapping your foot. One guy behind me – looking like he could be a banker or an insurance salesman – had fallen into a reverie, eyes half-closed, head swaying like a bobblehead doll. Others mimicked little dance steps, a few stabbed the air with their fists in synch with the beat.
One of the fiftysomething matrons ambled toward us, drink in hand, and slid in front of my daughter as if invited. She uttered a few words to no one in particular and I couldn’t figure out if she was with someone or just moving about the room on her own. A West Hills housewife, maybe, or a divorcee from Tarzana? She had probably grooved to these same songs 40 years ago, maybe caught T.O.P. at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The thing about T.O.P. fans is we never tire of hearing the same songs year after year, tour after tour, concert after concert. It’s nice to know there are some constants in life. Oh, sure, T.O.P. continues to crank out new stuff, but it’s all rooted in the same soul tradition.
“The great thing about playing in Los Angeles,” said Emilio Castillo, “is all the musicians come out. Please welcome to the stage our good friend, trombonist Nick Lane.”
I’d never heard of Nick, nor had most of the patrons, but in the spirit of the evening we gave him a raucous welcome. Anyone who’s a friend of T.O.P. is a friend of ours. And out trotted the guy we’d seen carrying the trombone case! He really was sitting in! Trombonists toil in relative obscurity; it’s not part of T.O.P.’s normal instrumentation. But, it complements the other horns and packs additional punch. I quickly looked up Nick Lane on my phone. I learned he’s an L.A. studio musician, having collaborated with Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Burdon, Neil Diamond, No Doubt, Rod Stewart – an eclectic bunch. A native of Marshalltown, Iowa. Small town boy makes the big time. You could tell the guy was holding his own and having a blast, and we were like proud parents, urging him on.
This is the music of California, I thought. Of course it’s universal – loved by fans around the world. But whenever I hear T.O.P. I can’t help but think about those early days when this band of soulmates from Oakland was bending ears and turning heads, their early fame racing down the coast and delighting the masses in southern California as well.
After the encore, we hit the exits; it was past bedtime for us old funkers! Out into the crisp night air, the music of a bygone era still ringing in our heads yet facing the realization that this is 2013 and there’s a big city out there and millions who’ve never heard of Tower of Power. It was a surreal reentry, but I suppose every fan has that moment when they leave a concert, experiencing that euphoria and just knowing they can hit the Play button in their brain at any time and keep the spirit alive.