Tower of Power’s show at Rochester’s Meadowbrook Hall this past Friday was as much a celebration between this great R&B soul group and the legion of fans who have supported the group for going on forty years as it was a solid concert event. Starting off with the song “We came to Play,” from their first album for Columbia Records, the band had the audience in the palms of their hands the entire evening.
“There’s Only So Much Oil in the Ground”, one of the all time jams from 1974’s “Urban Renewal” is as relevant today as when saxophonists Emilio Castillo and Steven ”Doc” Kupka first wrote it. One of the premier songwriting duos in pop music history, Kupka and Castillo have been writing songs, among them their first hit, the R&B classic “You’re Still a Young Man” as well as classic r&b soul/funk jams like “Soul Vaccination”, “Get Yo’ Feet Back On The Ground” and of course “What Is Hip?” since getting together in 1968 after discovering a shared love of Motown and soul music. Many of the jams the group performed Friday were Castillo/Kupka compositions.
Starting out with Bill Graham’s San Francisco label in 1970, the band then joined Warner Brothers in 1972, where they perfected their unique sound on 6 fantastic albums from 72 through 76. They experienced a revival of sorts after a down period in the eighties with a number of releases with Epic more recently. This group has experienced it all. On stage all those years don’t seem to matter as they are still performing at a high level – performing hit after hit with their classic sound intact despite numerous personnel changes throughout the years. When asked about the lyrical beauty of the many songs they wrote together during a brief interview before the concert, Castillo modestly deflected most of the praise to his writing partner. “We both do what we can, both musically and lyrically but the words mostly come from ‘Doc.’ He has a unique ability to turn a phrase that catches the spirit of a song beautifully.”
With a songwriting style that lyrically reminds one of Motown in its prime, (their first group was called The Motowns), Castillo and Kupka have maintained their signature style despite pressure from some of their past record companies to alter it. Castillo shared how Columbia approached the group after their success with Warner Brothers. “Columbia threw tons of money our way. Warner wanted us back but it was just too much money to turn down. The crazy thing was after they signed us, all they did was try to get us to sound like somebody else. They made suggestions trying to change our sound so we would be in their words “radio friendly.” In hindsight it was good financially, but creatively it was a bad move. We tried to make it work but in the end we had to be true to ourselves.” They eventually went back to Warner but because of some issues with different producers brought on board they never released another album with the label. The eighties was a down time for the band when a new sound was dominating pop music. “That was the time of disco, punk and new wave,” Castillo remembers. “We were told that our music was outdated and it would never be popular again. But here we are,” he said with a laugh, “still jamming 40 years later. We were called over the hill and old-fashioned but now we’re called an institution.”
Despite still not getting the radio airplay one would think that a group of their stature deserves, they are not slowing down. Castillo has his own theory about the lack of radio exposure. “Radio today is very bland. They kind of like things in a steady familiar flow without too many highs or lows. That’s not the kind of music we make now or have ever made. Our sound reaches extreme highs and lows. But to be honest, I’m glad to be doin’ it the way we do. I don’t want to sound like everybody else. And people are still diggin’ us.”
With a new concert on DVD out this month and a new studio CD coming out, T.O.P. is still doing their thing in a big way. “This CD is going to be a first for us,” Castillo remarked. “This is going to be full of covers from Aretha to Motown. It should be out by the end of the year.” That would be an awesome achievement for a group that was told they were over the hill twenty years ago. And by the look of things at Meadowbrook Friday with a packed house filling the pavilion, Tower of Power still has the drawing power necessary to keep touring successfully as long as they want. Along with saxophonist David Sanborn (who performed a fine first set) this was one of the finest concerts all summer.
Visit them at www.TowerofPower.com for more information on this supergroup.
William Eric Graham is a local freelance writer and the author of the novel Palmer Park. He’s written for ihedetroiter.com, The Metro Business Information Guide and The Highland Park Journal. He can be reached at WEGPUBLISHINGLLC@AOL.
We recently sat down for an interview with Detroit’s own international Hip-hop and spoken word artist MIKE-E. While that interview won’t see print for a few weeks, we’re still excited to bring you the exclusive download of his unreleased song “4 More Exits.” That’s right, you can say you heard it hear first. Also, you can catch MIKE-E at this weekend’s African World Fest at Hart Plaza Saturday at 1:45pm.
Listen to MIKE-E hear: http://www.afroflow.com/site/musik/4_more_exits.zip, catch his show this weekend, and come back soon for our feature length story with this amazing talent.
For more on MIKE-E, see his website, www.afroflow.com.
Take a ride down Woodward and you’ll notice a new sign above the marquee of the old State Theater. On June 13th the theater was reborn as the Fillmore Detroit, named after the famous San Francisco counterculture hotspot that gave rise to acts like Jefferson Airplane and the Doors.
“What we’re trying to do is establish an identity, like the House of Blues or the Hard Rock Café,” explains Jennifer Berkemeier, the Special Events Director at the Fillmore Detroit. The concert promoter Live Nation is responsible for the countrywide conversions, with theaters in Denver, Philadelphia, and Miami recently joining the famous Fillmore East in New York and the original Fillmore in California, with more on the way.
New changes inside the theatre reflect the legacy that the Fillmore Detroit joins. Blue-lit chandeliers, made exclusively for the Fillmore theatres, now hang throughout the lobby and auditorium, contrasted by vermillion red walls and curtains. There is a “rock wall” of framed vintage and contemporary rock n’ roll posters, as well as large photographs of Ozzy Osbourne, David Bowie, Ted Nugent, and Patti Smith playing at Michigan venues.
There is also a sign on one of the pillars in the lobby, scrawled with a comic “Take one… or two.” On the night of performances, a large basket is placed underneath the sign and filled with apples for guests to eat on their way into the theatre.
Jennifer laughs at the idea of arming the audience with ammunition to throw at disappointing performers. “We were kind of nervous about a potential mess, but it hasn’t been a problem yet,” she says of the Fillmore tradition.
Some workers are doing construction on the dance floor area. “There’s always some sort of work going on during the day,” Jennifer explains. “It’s an old building, and it gets a lot of traffic,” she says of the theatre, which was built in 1925. “If your house had this many visitors, you would be doing a lot of cleaning up, too.”
Jennifer walks us through the adjacent State Bar, which she describes as a “sports meets rock n’ roll bar”. Silk-screened posters by Mark Arminski line the walls. The big screen TV is tuned in for all big Detroit games. Jennifer motions out the window at Comerica Park across the street. “If the doors are open you can hear the game as you watch it on TV.”
Last month the traveling punk festival, the Warped Tour, rolled into Comerica’s parking lot. Though the Fillmore wasn’t a venue, it was still involved with the festival by selling tickets. Jennifer likes the idea of a music district, with Comerica Park across the street, the Fox Theatre next door, and the Max M. Fischer Music Center, the Detroit Opera House, and the Majestic Theatre Center nearby.
But Jennifer is also hoping that the Fillmore Detroit can branch out beyond being a music venue. Since she moved to her job at the theatre from her job at Live Nation’s corporate offices in Farmington Hills, she had made it a point to keep up with the goings-on of the downtown community. Already the theatre has a variety of atypical events lined up, such as a fashion show, the Detroit Motor Sports Awards, and even a boxing match. “I want the theatre to be involved with Detroit happenings,” she says. “When people are thinking of a place to host their private parties or weddings, I want the Fillmore to be an option.”
For more info, check out their website here.
Photos by Micaela Ruiz.