Two veterans of the music scene brought their unique rhythm and blues stylings to a nearly sold out Hollywood Bowl. It was an evening of solid musicianship, but with two surprises.
Tower of Power formed in the late 1960s in Oakland and exploded in the early 70s with a string of hits. Still anchored by band founders tenor saxophonist/vocalist Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka on baritone sax, the band has successfully cycled through a series of band members, estimated at five dozen. Most notably, ToP has had a series of commanding lead singers. Currently handling lead vocals is Marcus Scott. Opening the evening, ToP blazed through a great setlist, buttressed by their many hit singles: “So Very Hard to Go”, “What Is Hip?”, “Soul Vaccination” and “You Ought to Be Havin’ Fun.” The tight brass and rhythm sections evidenced why ToP has been the go-to session band for recordings by artists as diverse as Aaron Neville, Aerosmith, Bonnie Raitt, David Sanborn, Elton John, Little Feat, Michelle Shocked, Paula Abdul along with fellow bay area artists Huey Lewis and Santana.
Castillo and Kupka generally eschewed the spotlight at the Bowl, preferring to let their well-oiled chops garner deserved attention. Scott’s position out front on vocals evinced a performer seasoned beyond his years; he was able to elicit support from the audience with ease. The band’s collective harmonies were in great form, especially when they encored with their classic hit “You’re Still a Young Man.”
But the first surprise of the evening was when many in the audience realized the band did not perform another signature tune “Down to the Nightclub.”
Gladys Knight was introduced by four of her granddaughters, probably aged 4 to 10. That set the stage for another warm, embracing evening with the “Empress of Soul.” Moving gracefully and confidently across the vast stage, the 72 year old Knight was in superb command, unlike too many of her peers.
Working through her vast songbook, she delivered stirring versions of “If I Were Your Woman”, “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”, “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and 1987’s “Love Overboard.” Her band featured great performances from Darryle Woolfork (drums) Joseph Green (bass) and Yuko Tamura (keyboards). Offering smooth background vocals were Alexus Hoover, Brandon Smith, Porcha Clay and JaVont’e Pollard. Musical director Leon Turner provided seamless leadership.
One of the evening’s several highlights was her version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” She pointed out that her version was released before Marvin Gaye’s. Many prefer her stirring version, although Gaye’s version is superb.
A huge choir was brought to the stage for a few songs, one of which was a heartfelt “Imagine.” Lennon’s lyrics continue to reverberate down the decades.
But the evening’s second surprise was even larger than the first. When Knight left the stage, presumably en route to an encore, her band vamped a few bars of “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
When the house lights came on, we were stunned that was all we would hear from her signature song.