Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What is Hip?

What’s it called when ten musicians, ranging in age from thirty to sixty, play a consistent repertoire of tunes, none of which have hit the charts for the last twenty years? If the musicians are known as Tower of Power, you have as good an evening of musical entertainment as can be had.

TOP started in 1968 and had a decent run on the charts. “Don’t Change Horses” and “You Ought to be Having Fun” were probably their two biggest hits. Their current show fits both of these into a medley including a few of their more generally popular songs. It’s nice they acknowledge their past; what they’re about now is pleasing their fans.

They don’t play a lot of gigs anymore. You’re not going to catch them trying to drum up some nostalgia business on a bill with Black Sabbath or Motley Crue. TOP plays fifty or so concerts a year, mostly to true aficionados, and no one has more fun than they do.

They’re a throwback to the days when live performances were more than promotional appearances for the new album. They’ve only made two recordings in the last seven years. Their cult status is secure.

It’ll stay secure, too, since so much of the cult is populated by other musicians, or knowledgeable laymen. There’s nothing new at a TOP gig, no special effects, no whoring to bring in new listeners. They’re happy with the crowds they draw, which overflow the venues they play. They play for themselves, and for their long-time fans. They’re not averse to new believers; my fourteen year-old has seen them twice and loved it both times. TOP just wants to make sure the true believers get taken care of. They’re like the Grateful Dead for people with jobs.

Every concert is an hour and a half of balls to the wall soul, rhythm and blues, soul, and acknowledgements of the greatness of James Brown. The Godfather of Soul can’t be duplicated, so they don’t try. Every tune pays homage without being a rip-off. Brown’s influences are everywhere, but no one sounds like Tower of Power.

They are the coolest act in show business. What makes these pre-geriatric farts so cool? They do what they do better than anyone else, and make no pretense to be anything but what they are. A TOP performance lacks the arrogance of some popular “artists” who treat their audiences like dirt because no one else understands their brilliance. Quite the opposite; TOP makes sure to give their audience what it wants: an evening of flawlessly played, tightly arranged, energetically performed music that can’t be heard anywhere else.

Emilio Castillo, Steven Kupka, and Dave Garibaldi have known what is hip from the get-go. Lucky for all of us they choose to keep sharing it. Everyone should get on down to the nightclub for a soul vaccination once in a while, even when it’s souled out. To paraphrase one of their tunes, wherever I go, whatever I do, one thing remains the same: I’ll still be diggin’ on TOP.

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