Tom Bower - vocals; Emilio Castillo - tenor sax, background vocals; Stephen Kupka - baritone sax; Greg Adams - trumpet, flugelhorn, background vocals; Lee Thornburg - trumpet, background vocals; Steve Grove - tenor and alto saxophones, background vocals; Carmen Grillo - guitar, background vocals; Chester Thompson - keyboards; Rocco Prestia - bass; Russ McKinnon - drums, percussion; Guest: Colleen Kennedy - vocals on "Hold On I'm Coming"
Beginning as the Motowns in 1968, Oakland's Tower Of Power have become one of the most enduring of all the California bands, surviving numerous personnel changes over the past four decades. Throughout its impressive history, the primary songwriters, Emilio Castillo and Stephen "Doc" Kupka, have remained at the core, fueling this high-energy horn-based band. Originally signed to Bill Graham's San Francisco label, where they released their debut album in 1970, Tower Of Power signed with major label, Warner Brothers, a year or so later where they released six of their most popular albums between 1972 and 1976, despite numerous changes in personnel. After fulfilling their Warner Brothers contract, the group went through another personnel change and signed with Epic/Columbia, where they released 1978's We Came To Play, a somewhat erratic album that still contained the essential ingredients of punchy horn charts, exuberant vocals, and funky, high-energy instrumental support. Although the group remained a popular live concert attraction throughout the 1980s, commercial success alluded them and the high-powered horn section spent much of the latter part of this decade performing on recording sessions for other artists, where they remained in high demand.
Following the modest success of their albums in the 1980s, Tower Of Power again revamped personnel and began their fourth decade with their strongest album in several years, Monster On A Leash. Newly energized by the stylish vocals of Tom Bowes and with new drummer Russ McKinnon and guitarist Carmen Grillo on board, Tower Of Power returned to the tight, syncopated funk that established their reputation. The slick synthesizer-heavy sound that often hindered their 1980s releases was abandoned in favor of the fiery hot funk and strong horn punctuation that initially defined their sound.
This remarkable recording captures Tower Of Power at the very beginning of this rejuvenation, shortly before the recording sessions for Monster On A Leash. Performing at the annual Bill Graham Presents Christmas Party, on a bill that also featured the Neville Brothers and an unannounced appearance by Santana, this is one high-energy performance that never lets up. One thing Bill Graham certainly knew how to do was throw a party and this night was special, as it was not only a holiday celebration, but it also marked Graham's 25th Anniversary as a concert promoter. To celebrate, Graham threw this private bash at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre and the invitees, who included employees along with families, friends, and many of the local music elite, were treated to a night of great music where everyone in attendance automatically had a backstage pass and could roam the venue freely. As such, this night had a special intimate vibe that fuels Tower Of Power's performance. The close proximity of the audience and the intimacy of the venue bring out the best in what this newest Tower Of Power lineup had to offer.
The recording begins with BGP's Jerry Pompili welcoming everyone to the party, where he mistakenly refers to it as the 1991 Christmas Party, before turning the microphone over to Colleen Kennedy. Kennedy, who worked in the BGP ticket office for many years, not only introduces Tower Of Power, but also joins them as lead vocalist for the opening number, as the group tackle the Sam & Dave classic, "Hold On, I'm Coming." This opener and the follow-up show the band wasting no time cranking up the energy. This opener and the propulsive funk of "Soul Vaccination" which follows, serves as a soundcheck, with the mix being tweaked to perfection by the end of the second tune. From here on out, the recording is superb quality, capturing the group entering their healthiest era since their early '70s heyday. Although the set places heavy emphasis on many of their classic-era songs from the 1970s, Tower Of Power does treat the audience to a sneak preview of one new number destined for the Monster album, "A Little Knowledge (Is A Dangerous Thing)." Here, their new lead vocalist, Tom Bowes, proves himself a fiery frontman that commands attention.
From here on out, the set is a barrage of songs that made Tower Of Power famous and the energy level rarely wanes. Interspersing the high energy funk of "You Got To Funkifize," "Don't Change Horses," "Down To The Nightclub," and "What Is Hip" with soulful classics like "Can't You See," "This Time It's Real," "So Very Hard To Go," and "You're Still A Young Man," Tower Of Power deliver an explosive set that is a blast in every sense of the word. They also treat the audience to lesser known classics from their 1974 Urban Renewal album in the form of "Only So Much Oil In The Ground" and "It's Not The Crime," which they humorously dedicate to fallen celebrities Jim and Tammy Baker, Richard Nixon, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Pete Rose.
The band also manages to infuse some holiday music into the proceedings by playing "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" as a prelude to "You're Still A Young Man" and during one of the true highlights of this set, a killer 15-minute workout on "Squib Cakes," baritone saxman Stephen Kupka leads the group through a spontaneous rendition of "The Christmas Song (AKA Chestnuts Roasting On A Open Fire)." Nobody knew it then, but sadly this would be the last BGP Christmas Party for Graham, who would be killed in a helicopter accident the following October. At this point, however, everyone in attendance was in high spirits and geared up for a celebration with family and friends. Performing before this hometown audience at such a celebratory event certainly brought out the best in the band. The set closes with a propulsive romp through the title track to their 1976 album, Ain't Nothin' Stoppin' Us Now, a perfect statement for this rejuvenated band who was once again reaching the peak of their powers.