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Steve Miller Band
Tower of Power

August 2, 2014
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
Irvine, CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Ron Lyon

Journey, the Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power closed out their 2014 summer tour together in Irvine, California, on a balmy Saturday night. Traveling to more than 30 cities in roughly two and half months, the tour came full circle, having opened on May 15 at the Sleep Train Amphitheatre in Chula Vista, California — a two-hour drive south from Irvine. It was billed as the “San Francisco Fest,” and it was the first time all three had embarked on the road together. The sold-out audience crammed into the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater is a sign they should consider doing more shows. Maybe next summer.

It was going to be a long night of music, so Tower of Power came out early — 6:45 — to a half-filled house. What a shame for the late-comers because TOP always puts on a great show. There’s nothing too deep or provocative about Tower of Powers — it’s really about getting down and having a good and funky time. At least that’s the way it began with a pair of songs from TOP’s late 70s Columbia Records period — “We Came To Play” and “You Ought To Be Havin' Fun.”

Singer Ray Greene, who replaced Larry Bragg at the beginning of the year, has comfortably slipped into his role as TOP’s frontman. “This is the final night of the tour,” he announced enthusiastically. “There’s no better way than to end it in Orange County.” Rounded out by founding members and sax men Emilio Castillo and Stephen ("Doc") Kupka, along with bassist Francis Rocco Prestia, drummer David Garibaldi, keyboardist Roger Smith, guitarist Jerry Cortez, Tom E. Politzer on the tenor sax, and Adolfo Acosta and Sal Cracchiolo on trumpet — TOP made the most of their brief set with a tasty selection of mid-tempo shakers like “This Time It’s Real,” a stirring cover of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Mdnight Train In Georgia" and those funky movers, like “Soul Vaccination” and the set-ending “What Is Hip.”

By 7:45, Steve Miller and his band were on, and the place was bursting at the seams. The lawn area was even filling up. Of course, when it comes to Steve Miller, it’s pretty much about his cache of hit songs, so right out of the shoot, it was “Jungle Love,” “Take The Money And Run” and “Abracadabra.” Standing in front of a backdrop comprising two large, majestic stallions or unicorns facing off, likely rearing in unison, Miller mentioned the 40th anniversary of The Joker album (actually released in 1973, but the celebration continues), adding that the present Steve Miller Band had re-recorded it.

There wasn’t enough time to dig that deeply into the whole album (as he had done in 2013 when he toured with the Doobie Brothers), but he did pull out its opener “Sugar Babe.” And it was just about then that the rain drops began to fall in Irvine. It continued, unobtrusively and somewhat welcomed in the drought-ridden California, through “Space Cowboy,” which Miller said was written at the Fillmore, where he played 120 times.

Checkmates singer Sonny Charles, who’s been with Miller since 2008, took the lead vocals for “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” while the nonsense under the light rain carried on with “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma,” another one from The Joker album. Of course, right after the smooth flow of “Winter Time” and the acoustic clap-along “Dance Dance Dance,” Miller donned a Joker mask (available for $10 at the swag bar) and the song “The Joker” was rolled out, setting in motion a range of Steve Miller Band classics to follow.

By this time, everyone was on their feet and dancing, so “Swingtown,” “Rock'n Me” and “Jet Airliner” supplied the perfect soundtrack for the revved-up Irvine audience. Once the big balloons came out, the excitement intensified. Even Miller himself was having fun, popping the balloons with the headstock of his guitar. After encoring with “Serenade” and “Fly Like An Eagle,” Miller introduced his band — Charles, bassist Kenny Lee Lewis (Miller remarked he’d with him for 33 years), drummer Gordy Knudtson, keyboardist Joseph Wooten, and guitarist Jacob Peterson — and thanked Journey and Tower of Power for a great tour.

It was time for Journey, clearly the most anticipated of the three. I hadn’t seen them since the 80s, during the Raised On Radio tour when things were starting to unravel for the band. I remember talking to Neal Schon backstage at the Long Beach Arena, and when Perry walked by, he didn’t even acknowledge his guitarist. Of course, the two would work together in the 90s, but health issues prevented any further touring, and Journey has carried on with other singers.

Having first seen Journey when they were a foursome opening for Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1977, I was not a big fan of their pop-rock leanings of the early 80s, nor was I particularly fond of Perry’s high-flying vocals. Since then, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for Perry and many of the songs. More than anything, however, my renewed interest in Journey has to do with their present lead singer Arnel Pineda, the Filipino singer Schon discovered on YouTube. Pineda’s story is so extraordinary, they made about a film about it in 2012 called Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey. Today, Journey, at least on the live circuit, is as popular as ever.

The stage was huge with stacks of light cubes along the back. The rain now recede, the lights lowered just around 9:30 and boom — Journey lifted off for the 85 minutes with hardly a break in the action. Opening with “Be Good To Yourself,” from the aforementioned Raised On Radio album, It was clear why Schon had hired Arnel Pineda as Journey’s singer — the guy is a human dynamo, full of energy and vigor, with a voice very much like Perry’s, but also more youthful, maybe even more passionate. Although I’m not sure if the powerful in his voice on ‘Separate Ways” drove the two women 10 rows in front of me to fisticuffs (I kid you not), but you never know.

“Any Way You Want It” featured keyboardist Jonathan Cain on rhythm guitar, while Schon laid down the signature lead. The man’s guitar playing skills remain undiminished, perhaps even a bit edgier than in the 70s and 80s. He monstered the fretboard for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as evidenced by his flying fingers projected on the amphitheater house screens.

One of the stranger moments of the set was when Pineda left the stage, and bassist Ross Valory introduced drummer Deen Castronovo, who took over the lead vocals for “Mother, Father” from the gazillion-selling Escape album. An Orange County native, Castronovo’s voice is as Perry-like and commanding as Pineda’s; he could probably take over if the need arose. As it is, he’s an incredibly gifted drummer — his singing talents and overall musicality merely broaden his sense of adventure beyond that of previous Journey bashers like Steve Smith and Aynsley Dunbar.

“Lights” had everyone singing before Cain took over with a flurry of piano licks and teasers of other Journey songs. This lead into “Open Arms,” on which Pineda delivered an impassioned vocal. “Ritual,” from the 2011 Eclipse album, features more of Schon’s blazing guitar work. “Wheel In The Sky” brought the masses back to their feet, and “Don't Stop Believin'” had them swaying in the aftermath of raining confetti, shot from the front of the stage.

The encore of “Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'” wasn’t exactly something I was waiting for, but the softies in the crowd ate it up like cotton candy at the fair. Afterwards, the band did the traditional bow, and went on to thank Steve Miller, Tower of Power, everyone on the crew and everyone connected to the tour. It's a strong package with some legs for future dates, if they want.  In the meantime, Journey, Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power will undoubtedly turn up for more shows somewhere, by themselves or with others. You can always rely on a good time, world-class musicianship and classic songs when they do.

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