By Mike Finkelstein
The pairing of War and Tower of Power at the Greek Theater Saturday night had the earmarks of a poppin’ high time of great music. They’ve played the Greek together before and blown the doors off of the place. Both bands have an impressive catalogue of enduring hit songs, a strong longtime following, and they continue to tour regularly. So, they have definitely kept their sea legs beneath them.
The wild card on the bill Saturday were Cheech and Chong, who more or less emceed and provided comic relief throughout the evening. It was going to be interesting to see how all of this actually played out. In the end it’s probably fair to say the results were mixed. It was pretty weird.
The crowd at the Greek was an interesting one. It seems that the Greek sells tall cans of beer this season and these were a very popular item Saturday. Many patrons bought them in pairs…repeatedly. By the end of the night people were staggering up and down the stairs. In keeping with the Oakland theme that comes with Tower of Power (a local treasure of that fine city), the gig felt a lot like a Raiders tailgate party. This was a great opportunity for people watching.
My hope for Saturday night was that there would be one great set of music, then some vintage live comedy from C and C, and then another great set of music. It didn’t quite work out that way. From the start the comedic bar was set to a scatological low level that few actually want to endure. It began to get a little embarrassing to hear men and women (Tommy Chong’s wife, Shelby) in excess of 60 and 70 years old talking like this to thousands of people at the Greek Theatre every time they got behind a microphone.
Throughout the evening Tower of Power and War didn’t get to play more than two or three songs before another comedic interlude/interruption from Cheech and Chong. Was anything added by having Tower of Power play “Basketball Jones” behind Cheech and Chong? Not when we had to listen to all the juvenile stuff first. TOP really doesn’t have any need to be sharing their time slot with Cheech and Chong. Nor does War. Share the stage, sure, why not? Share the actual time slot, come on, they don’t need to do that. It was like watching a great band rehearsal get interrupted by a couple of goofy 12 year olds. Somebody take these kids to the park or the movies so the music can continue.
With all of this being said, it should be noted that TOP was as crisp as ever and Larry Braggs was once again in fine form on lead vocals. Blowing through hits like “What is Hip?” “You’re Still a Young Man,” and “So Very Hard to Go,” their catalogue has aged like fine wine. We just didn’t get to hear as much of it as they might have played otherwise. These are classic songs and the vaunted 5 piece Tower of Power horn section, led by longtime members Emilio Castillo on tenor sax and the Professor, Steven Kupka, on baritone sax is still honkin’ and smokin’. Tight, tight, tight.
The same basic plight that TOP met also awaited War. Led by the charismatic and talented keyboardist, Lonnie Jordan, they too couldn’t get far into the set without having to stop for the silliness. They did a spattering of their most recognizable tunes including “Me and Baby Brother,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Cisco Kid,” “Slipping into Darkness,” and “Summer.” Though the personnel have changed quite a bit since the songs were recorded, the lineup is basically the same. And for a lot of people, the juxtaposition of harmonica and saxophone will always evoke War’s sound. War’s set did include the one sweet surprise of the night — a fine rendition of “Spill the Wine,” the 1970 hit song that they cut with Eric Burdon. Lonnie Jordan did a great job on the ultra laid back vocal line and the signature flute trills from David Urquidi were a nice attention to detail. Hot flames of fire roaring at his back, indeed…
The Tower of Power horns marched through the aisle up onto the stage to join War at the end of the evening. Even then they had to stand there with their horns in their hands and listen to more of the stoner dudes. Finally, they got to flesh out “Low Rider” with War…and it did sound tremendous.
Cheech and Chong were big in the seventies and early eighties with a weed-tinged angle on the world. The personae of a hippie burner and his similarly stoned Chicano counterpart were endearing and rather progressive at the time. Their comedy sketches were classic – the sort of thing that many a teenage dude learned word for word, nuance for nuance back in the day … whilst learning the art of smoking dope. One was part and parcel to the other. But that was then and this is now.
To be fair, Cheech and Chong did do their famous Santa Claus routine pretty much straight through and it was entertaining. They are still funny when they make the effort to keep it “clean.” This would be a much better direction for them to go in. And in this way every body else can be left to do what they do on their own terms at a pace that doesn’t include silliness.
When left to their own devices both War and Tower of Power are still among the very best at what they do. So, how about just letting them carry on uninterrupted?
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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.
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