Thursday, May 24, 2007

What Is Hip? ToP Still Is...

A little over two years ago, I had the opportunity to see Tower of Power at the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival, and the review of that show generated more comments than nearly any other post. The major bone of contention between me and some of the commenters was that they said that the Denton show was extremely subpar by ToP standards, whereas I--seeing them for the first time in a decade--was simply happy to experience them again.

So I'm going to do something almost unprecedented today: Admit that I was wrong on something. Because, having seen ToP again last night at the brand-spanking-new House of Blues in Dallas' Victory Park, I will now concur that the Denton appearance was a subpar show, and last night was the best ToP show I've ever seen.

The personnel hasn't changed all that much in the past two years; Larry Braggs remains the lead vocalist, the featured tenor player is still Tom Politzer, and guitarist Bruce Conte has rejoined the band, which means that three-fourths of the "classic" rhythm section is again intact (bassist Francis "Rocco" Prestia and renowned drummer David Garibaldi rounding out the unit).
Without the sound issues that plagued the Denton show, it was a party from beginning to end.

Co-leaders Steve "Doc" Kupka (bari sax) and Emilio Castillo (second tenor, background and occasional lead vocals) have been together for 39 years now, still writing most of the tunes. I had been told by some friends who saw the band in New York recently that the show there was a little lacking in "classic" material, but most of the old favorites were included in last night's show, including "Down to the Nightclub (Bump City)," "So Very Hard to Go," "Oakland Stroke," "What Is Hip?" and the obligatory encore of "You're Still a Young Man."

All in all, it was a really fun show. I'll go out on a limb and say that Braggs has become ToP's best lead vocalist since the early days of Lenny Williams and Hubert Tubbs, and Politzer is the best lead tenor since Lenny Pickett (now of SNL fame). Standing within mere feet of the stage, the sound was great; everytime Kupka played a low A right into the mic, I could feel it in my marrow. Politzer augmented his bluesy licks with some occasional tasty sideslipping, as if to say "the blues is making me some money at the moment, but I can still play." UNT alum Adolfo Acosta had some tasty solos and some thrilling high notes, and he and fellow trumpeter Mike Bogart did a great job of playing some of Greg Adams' classic solos in two-part harmony. The crowd--made up of both diehard contemporaries from ToP's hitmaker days as well as people whose parents weren't even dating when "So Very Hard to Go" was on the charts--was enthusiastic, dancing and singing along to nearly everything.

There may not be a lot of new material these days, but this is one band that can still revisit its classic catalog with great results. After that last show two years ago, it's great to see them back in fine form.

A house for the blues: Overall, I was impressed with the House of Blues; the tickets were somewhat pricey, but the venue was nice, and there seemed to be plenty of room for everyone. We arrived early enough to get a close-in parking space, so that was not an issue. Security was tight--I hadn't had to empty my pockets or get wanded at a concert since my heavy-metal days--but the personnel were courteous, and they even had the foresight to do gender-specific wanding (which confused a lot of people, who didn't understand at first why they had to wait in line for the guy when the lady had no line in front of her). For a concert like this, we were happy to have not paid extra for the seating area in the balcony, as standing on the floor was much more fun. The drinks looked pricey--and the adjoining restaurant very much so--but we managed to hold off on dinner until later, so it is possible to have an evening here that's not a budget-buster. With the demise of the Bronco Bowl, it's always nice to have another midsized venue for concerts in Dallas.

A sign of victory for the future: Tonight's excursion also included a walk through the Victory Park area adjacent to the HOB. The new-urban development that leads to the south doors of the American Airlines Center (which I have yet to visit; Stars or Mavs game next year, anyone?) has been touted as a sort of "Times Square of Dallas." Having been to the real Times Square a few months ago, I can say that there would have to be a lot more neon to match the original, but it's still a cool place, and having the WFAA-TV (Channel 8) studios in there is a nice touch (we were able to see part of the ten o'clock news as it happened, and might have actually gotten to be on it had we stuck around for a while). There's still not a whole lot of stuff open that late at night, but the area definitely has potential; I'll be back.

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