Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tower of Power Live Set Unearthed

Funk. When it was new, the form had enormous power and the ability to liberate rhythm to a higher level of intensity. When I think of the music, I think especially of three bands. Of course there was James Brown and his associates. What he did from, say, 1964 through 1970 was to almost single-handedly transform the function of the rhythm section and the riffs that lay on top of that. Listen to "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" with a fresh ear and you'll hear a landmark of the music.

Second, there was Funkadelic, who stretched the form and added new dimensions to what was supposed to be done. There were other bands too of course. But the third one that sticks out in my head is Tower of Power. Through a series of albums beginning with East Bay Grease through to Drop it in the Slot in the mid-'70s, they crafted incredibly tight arrangements that let the rhythm instruments groove freely. And those horns, they just were the best around for precision funkifying.

Now perhaps that kind of music has gotten a little tired. Blame disco, bad radio, blame endless luke-warm "jazz" performances by less-than-committed musicians that made funk into a commodity. (Now we aren't talking about Miles Davis here, he would be a fourth choice for funk innovators.) When you hear the music the way it was played in its prime moment, though, the excitement and vibrancy comes back again, provided you open yourself up to it.

Like with what we talk about today. Some 36 years after it was first captured on tape, TOP Records has released a two-CD set of Tower of Power live in a club in Boston, 1973. East Bay Archive, Volume One, brings the band onto your speakers as they sounded that evening. It is a quite decent recording, with a little bit of the room ambiance at play. They were on top of it. They play through their repertoire with just enough of the added adrenaline a live situation can bring out to make it a real pleasure to hear. There's a loose-tight contrast at play. The drummer propels the band a little harder than he might do in the studio, and the band responds with some spirited funk as only they could conjure.

It's a set the confirmed Tower of Power addict cannot pass up. And it's just plain old fun too.

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