Pop Music Live: War, Tower of Power and the Average White Band at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

Last weekend, War, Tower of Power and the Average White Band shared the stage at the packed Greek Theater.   These are three of the most memorable names from 70’s soul.  All had considerable radio success then.  War and TOP have dozens of iconic tracks between them and the vast majority of the audience was likely grooving to these songs when they first came out.   You could just feel the anticipatory buzz in the balmy outdoor air.

Average White Band

Opening the show was the Average White Band, an enduring Scottish funk/soul band who appeared on the international scene in the early 70’s.   AWB’s line up showed some interesting versatility as they swapped instrumental duties on several numbers.  Onnie McIntyre and Alan Gorrie both sang leads and played guitar and bass, Fred Vigdor doubled on sax and keyboards and Klyde Jones rotated between keyboards, guitar, bass and lead vocals.  No doubt about it, AWB went over very well as a third billed act.  The crowd knew the material and were anticipating the hits.  Towards the end of the set the hits were delivered and people were dancing at their seats and in the aisles.   This is as pure a sign of approval as a band could hope for.   Songs like “Cut the Cake” and the signature tune “Pick Up the Pieces” sounded timeless, as good Saturday night as they were over 30 years ago.   Sometimes it takes not hearing a great song for quite a while to make obvious just how good it is.  And with “Cut The Cake,” I was one of many who kept hearing the immortal lascivious line, “Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee, gimmee, gimmee that cake!” … and was still digging it.

Next on was Tower of Power, who are surely a testimonial to keeping things at a peak level for the longest of times.   The core of this band has been working steadily together through numerous personnel changes over a period of 42 years.   They still sounded like a well tuned high performance musical engine.  TOP featured a poppin’ five piece horn section led by founding members Emilio Castillo on tenor sax and Stephen “Doc” Kupka on baritone sax (a most hypnotically funky instrument rarely seen in pop music).  The band was powered by a rhythm section of Francis Rocco Prestia on bass and David Garibaldi on drums that thumped and snapped like few others around.  TOP bopped, glided, and swayed through a panorama of moods and grooves in this show.

Tower of Power

It takes one very polished front man to guide all of this energy and sound in a ten-man band.  Tower of Power has certainly made a fine chocie Larry Braggs.  He sang the slow songs with power and control, effortlessly opening it up and reelng it back in emotionally for dynamic effect.   Songs like the gorgeous and touching “So Very Hard To Go,”  and the poignant ballad “You’re Still A Young Man,” showcased his singing beautifully.  When the band lurched into open throttle funk on songs like “What is Hip” and “Down to the Nightclub” they took it to the next level. TOP played with a remarkable mix of precision, power and crisp arrangements, and it was gratifying to see them burn it up the way they did.

Tower of Power even has a new album out, The Great American Soulbook, a set of classic soul covers.  Among the songs they performed from it were the Billy Paul classic “Me And Mrs. Jones,” as well as a medley of James Brown covers.  Castillo explained, and the sound of the band confirmed, that it all begins with James Brown for them.  Listening to them pop and honk through “I Got the Feeling” it was clear as could be.

War was the headliner Saturday night and they did not disappoint.  Their music is a very unique mix of many different styles.  Elements of doo-wop, Calypso, reggae, funk, and soul can be heard throughout their catalogue but these musical strands are woven together so that it always sounds like War. While most of their songs are undeniably funky they do not often move very fast, but they groove like no one else’s business!

Lonnie Johnson and War

The band was fronted by the charismatic Lonnie Johnson, who held forth with a warm and knowing demeanor from behind a set of keyboards painted with bright designs.  War gets a very unique sound from their unusual instrumentation.  They featured Salvador Rodriguez on drums who is as steady as they come and plays with a winsome flair.  Next to Rodriguez was a full set of percussion played skillfully by Marcos Reyes.   At the bottom of this rhythmic mix was Francisco “Pancho” Tomaselli from Ecuador, who held down one solid bass line after another all night.  War also featured a unique sonic combination of saxophone (Fernando Harkles) and harmonica (Mitch Kashmar).   The mix of these two instruments together over the band’s inimitable percussive groove made for a signature sound.

War’s set was a romp through their catalogue of hits.  They opened up with “Cisco Kid,” one of their most easily recognized songs and the gig was off to a fine start.     As the show progressed, Johnson took time to explain some of what was behind songs like “Me and Baby Brother” and “Slipping Into Darkness” (tripping and drinking).   These are issues that resonate with an urban audience and the crowd at the Greek had come to hear these songs because, well, if you grew up listening to the radio in the 70’s then you quite likely know all of these songs like the back of  your hand.  War also played some of their lighter songs such as “Summer” and “Why Can’t we Be friends?” and they all worked like a charm.

But the one number that probably translated best to the present was “Lowrider”. This delightful and ubiquitous jam is War’s signature song. Its appeal was ultimately in the amazing groove it established, as it chugged and shuffled along sparsely yet deliberately.   Ultimately, it is this balance of odd but appealing voicings with great grooves that will keep War’s songs in the hearts of many more people in the future.  The best tunes do endure.

Throughout the night I watched a pair of kids, perhaps brother and sister, in the wings to the side of the stage.  They probably weren’t even in middle school yet but these two were dancing euphorically “old school”  to Tower of Power and War for well over an hour.   This nicely supports the idea that great music appeals to people of all ages.

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