Saturday, March 27, 2010

"Can't Get Enough of That Funky Stuff"

"Hello, my name is Randall and I'm a funk addict."

"Hello Randall."

Unbeknowst to me in my childhood, I was born with a redundant rhythm chromosome. It wasn't until my early teens when the musical white wasteland of Patti Page and Julius LaRosa gave way to the likes of Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, and Sam & Dave that the stirrings of something unusual began to appear. By the time Motown hit the airwaves, I was completely addicted to pulsing bass lines and a solid beat. With the discovery of James Brown and the Famous Flames, I finally came to grips with the fact that I had a deep and inescapeable sense of rhythm that would rival an atomic clock, a condition that was certainly far from typical given my race and rural upbringing. As the years went on, my insatiable lust for funky music soon meant that dancing was not enough, I HAD to PLAY that funky stuff! From the first time that drumsiticks met my hands, everything else in life became virtually meaningless. The pursuit of funky music lead me to seek out players of said funky music and finally coupled me up with a blind genius on a Hammond B-3 organ, the master of a Gibson Les Paul, and a singer whose deep voice and perfect smile could melt womens' underwear from 50' away. Life was good and VERY funky.

In 1974, a saxophone player friend said, "You have to hear these guys."

"Who are they?"

"Tower of Power...from Oakland, California."


He put on a vinyl record and the most incredible music I had ever heard met my ears. It was what they called "Urban Funk", and it was a driving, solid beat, a killer bass line, chunky guitar licks, beautiful Hammond organ parts, and a horn line of trumpets and saxophones that bumped and blasted their way through each song, interspersed with the growl of a baritone saxophone. The tight, professional arrangements were performed flawlessly beneath a blues vocal line that just left me breathless. The next day I bought "Urban Renewal", still my favorite album.

Thirty five years later - Life has intervened and my music playing days are history but that annoying rhythm chromosome simply won't die. I've tried burying it, forgetting it, ignoring it, laughing at it, but nothing seems to make it go away. As a gift for Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant, Mrs. Randall secretly secured tickets for a Tower of Power concert located in Falls Church, Virginia, near Washington D.C., at a venue called the State Theater. She surprised me with an entire room and dinner package to go with the concert. For as much as I dread going anywhere near Washington, D.C., this was a bucket list item.

The State Theater is hardly an architectural landmark. It's basically one of those grand old neighborhood theaters that lost its grand many years ago. Somebody bought it and renovated it for live shows that will accommodate maybe 300 people. They added a kitchen and several bars, removed the first floor seats, and put in tables that allow patrons the flexibility of dinner seating, balcony seating, or "mosh pit" style standing between the tables and the front of the stage. Mrs. Randall, in her wisdom, had reserved a dinner table for two that turned out to be in the front row of tables and about thirty feet from the center of the stage. A 'wow' in its own right.

The band had already set up and rehearsed before we entered the theater. We were taken to our table and promptly ordered dinner as the theater began to fill. I could not resist going down onto the floor; I HAD to get closer to the stage, if only for a short time. In the dim light of the largely dark stage stood Tower of Power's equipment including David Garibaldi's drum set. I stood staring as if I were seeing a holy relic or a shrine. After all those years of listening to the true master of the instrument amaze me with his ability, there before me sat the tools with which he created his magic. I felt so unworthy.

The theater began to fill, but not with kids and not with twenty-somethings...or thirty-somethings. Forty was a starting point for most, and I couldn't help wondering how all those grey hairs were going to stand through two hours of a rocking show. I was damned glad to have our seats, and really great seats they were.

The stage lights lit up and out came the members of Tower of Power. I guess I somehow expected to see the same bunch of guys from the album covers, with open shirts, bell-bottomed pants, beads, and big afro hairdos. Out came ten guys in blue jeans, tee shirts, and ball caps; grey haired if not bald; pot bellied, and not at all looking like what my mind had invisioned. They looked more like plumbers, auto body repairmen, and high school football coaches than like musicians. I had spent much of my life around musicians and the only one looking the part was the bass player who looked like a guy fighting heroically to overcome his meth addiction. I don't know what else I had expected, but it was a bit startling. Of the two founders, one looked like Geppetto the wood carver and the other resembled a Korean dry cleaner. Pretty ordinary looking guys to compose a band I had been in awe of for 35 years. Then they picked up their instruments and the stage caught fire!

I don't know if someone who has not been involved with music can understand the level of skill and precision at which this band operates. Each member is not just a complete master of his instrument, each also plays very complicated staccato parts without missing a note. The music was all there, without variation, from 35 years ago. I have never grooved so hard. Their music swept me up so completely that my feet moved in eighth notes, my shoulders rocked in time and my head bobbed at each bump & blast. At one point I had tears streaming down my face. There are few religious experiences to rival what happened to me as my rhythm chromosome swelled to the size of a basketball.

I had to watch David Garibaldi play. I've watched some of the greatest play before and they have a way of making the impossible look easy. For years I had listened to David and couldn't believe my ears. Now I watched and couldn't believe my eyes. His bushy brown curly hair is gone now, replaced by close-cropped, tightly curled grey hair, but those incredible hands are as good now as they ever were. I remembered when I played, my body grooved along with the music I played, but the truly great players don't seem to do that. The great ones that I have seen have a "ho-hum, just another day at the office" look that always astounded me. The man is a rhythm machine playing at a level light years beyond anything I could have ever achieved, and yet his degree of dispassion is disconcerting. How can ANYONE groove that magnificently and not feel it to his very core. I sure felt it. For two solid hours and an encore my body pulsed and rocked to the magic of a bunch of ordinary looking guys who make absolutely masterful music. And I wasn't alone. 300 other geezers grooved and screamed like a bunch of fourteen year-old girls at a Jonas Brothers concert. It's a wonder that 911 wasn't flooded with heart attack calls.

As we left the theater and walked into the chilly night, I couldn't help thinking that, if I lose my hearing tomorrow, it would be all right because, as far as I am concerned, I have heard music played the way God intended and it can get no better than that.