The sun shone brightly, crowds filled the Riverfront Amphitheater and kept coming. And Tower of Power, still Oakland’s pride after 41 years, ripped off the roof at Alive at Five — a remarkable trick for an outdoor show.
It was funky and then more funky: They built the groove from a hot start to a hotter finish in 90 minutes with arc, energy and emotion. Some of it was silly, light and trivial — but also irresistible fun.
They opened with their customary mission statement: “We Came to Play,” following a jolt-free segue into “Soul With a Capital ‘S’,” and they wound up, of course, with their longtime closers and biggest (only?) hits “What is Hip?” and “You’re Still a Young Man.”
Some of the men on stage were actually young: sparkplug singer Larry Braggs, keyboardist Bobby Sparks, guitarist Mark Harper, trumpeter Adolfo Acosta and trumpeter/trombonist Mike Bogart. The veterans’ faces and forms showed some miles on the odometer: bassist Rocco Prestia, saxophonists Emilio Castillo, Tom Politzer and Doc Kupka. But not the seemingly ageless drummer David Garibaldi, who never broke a sweat, never hit an extra or un-funky accent and blasted snare shots that must have cracked masonry in Troy.
It was mostly mid-tempo, consistently delicious, big-beat nonsense, but with some serious message music mixed in among the beats, the laughs, the riffs and the rock. Early on, they invited the crowd to “get funky, like a bald-headed monkey,” and somehow everyone figured out what that meant and followed directions. However, the energy crisis lament “Only So Much Oil in the Ground,” the pained narcissism of “How Could This Happen to Me,” all about payback, and “I Got to Groove,” about fighting addictions, put some gravity amid the grooves.
Even when it was just grooves, as in a volcanic James Brown medley, they were still superb — the ever-electric Braggs dancing all over the stage while singing great, the horns riffing with dazzling micro-precision and the beat shaking the whole place and making your pulse race.
They also introduced some new (to them) cover songs from their new “Great American Soulbook” album. In “Me and Mrs. Jones,” couples slow-danced and kissed or jumped up, sang and waved. This didn’t happen when Mark Eitzel sang it (also great) at WAMC last week. And they played the songs everybody knew they had to, managing to refresh even classic-rock-radio’ed-to-death “What Is Hip?” and “You’re Still a Young Man.” They’re (mostly) not still young men themselves, but they are hip as a 1970s nightclub at midnight on a hot night, seen through a raised-to-the-lips cold one.
Putting any horn band on stage before Tower of Power really isn’t fair, but the Out of Control Rhythm & Blues band entertained well in a tough spot. The horns locked tight from the first blast of “Boppin’ the Blues,” sax man Rick Rourke and guitarist Denny Dwyer divided the vocals and tenor sax man Joe “Box” Dragone played the best solos. Like Tower of Power, Out of Control played better than their songs, engaging the big crowd well.
Alive at Five continues Thursday with the Neville Brothers.