Recovering from a near tragedy and preparing for 50th anniversary, Tower of Power headlines Jazz Aspen June Experience
If You Go …
What: Tower of Power
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience, Benedict Music Tent
When: Sunday, June 25, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $27-$75.95
More info: Tower of Power follows Lisa Fischer, who opens the festival at 5 p.m.
Tower of Power has a lot to celebrate these days.
The legendary soul and funk band, which headlines the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience on Sunday, is nearing its 50th anniversary and grateful that two members survived a recent train accident.
Founding member Emilio Castillo said the 10-piece band was “firing on all 10 cylinders” when tragedy struck in January. Drummer Dave Garibaldi and bassist Marc Van Wageningen were struck by an Amtrak train while walking to a jazz club in Oakland. The incident, Castillo said, has brought the tight-knit band even closer together.
“It shakes you to the core,” Castillo said in a recent phone interview. “And whenever you go through something like that you realize how much you love each other and how much you value that friendship.”
Castillo said they expect Garibaldi — Tower of Power’s drummer since 1970 — to return to the band in November. Van Wageningen had more severe injuries but is on his way to a full recovery.
“Marc is doing much better,” Castillo said. “We weren’t sure he was going to live. He was in a coma for eight weeks. So we’re pleased that he’s OK. They’re both going to be 100 percent, but it’s a long process.”
Despite the crisis, the band went back on the road this spring. Former drummer Herman Matthews returned to fill in for Garibaldi and longtime bassist Francis Rocco Prestia is handling bass duties.
Meanwhile, the mid-1970s hit machine that made “So Very Hard to Go,” “Soul With a Capital ‘S,’” “What is Hip” and other hits is preparing for its 50th anniversary next year. The band has remained a hard-touring outfit over the decades, boasting one of the best horn sections in music.
When Castillo met fellow sax player Stephen “Doc” Kupka in Oakland in 1968 and founded what would become Tower of Power, he had no idea they’d still be at it five decades later.
“My dream back then was, ‘If I could just get to Sacramento!’” Castillo recalled with a laugh. “It was that limited. That was how small my world was.”
But even back then, as a 17-year-old with a dream, he was committed to devote his life to the band. He recalled that his parents left Oakland for Detroit in 1968 and the teen Castillo stayed behind, simply hoping to land a gig at the Fillmore.
“My dad said, ‘You can stay out here for a year, but if nothing happens in a year you have to come back and live with us,’” he said. “We had a year to make it. And we did it.”
They signed a record contract and quickly found the funky soul sound that became Tower of Power’s signature.
Countless musical trends and fads have come and gone over the past half-century, but Tower of Power has transcended them. Castillo said that’s because they avoided them.
“We were urged by our record company, in the late ’70s, to follow trends — they told us, ‘Could you sound like these people?’ or ‘Could you do a big disco hit?’” he recalled. “And these people are going to give you a lot of money, so you want to please them. But what we did instead was we sounded like ourselves.”
Time and experience have taught them to stay true to themselves, even while pop music drifts away from them.
“When it all dried up and they were calling us dinosaurs, saying ‘These guys will never be popular again,’ we just said, ‘Let’s do it the way we want to do it.,’” he said. “The fact that we don’t sound like anyone else is not a curse, it’s a blessing,”
After the big Jazz Aspen show Sunday, expect to hear a lot about Tower of Power in the next year. The band has been working on a new album to celebrate its 50th.
“One of my old managers has been telling me ‘You need to make the best recording of your career for your 50th,’” Castillo said. “The only way you can do that is to ‘Michael Jackson’ it.”
Jackson-ing it, he explained, is shorthand for using the King of Pop’s strategy of recording tons of material and songs — way more than you need for an album — and then culling it down. Before Garibaldi and Van Wageningen were injured, Tower of Power had recorded 28 new original songs. The band and its producers are polishing those tracks and planning to pick the best 12 for a record release in early 2018, followed by a 50th anniversary show at the Fox Theatre in Oakland and a tour.
The in-progress record would be the band’s first studio album since 2009’s “The Great American Soulbook.”
Though its personnel has shifted often over the years around Castillo and Kupka, a key to Tower of Power’s longevity — and its legendary live shows — has been that they simply love making music together.
“We just went up to Bellingham for a few shows, and packing up I’m thinking ‘I can’t wait to go up there and hang out with my guys,’” Castillo said. “We go up there, we hang, we talk, it’s not like, ‘Ugh, we gotta go do this.’ We love each other.”
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