- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Back when he was 14, Emilio Castillo got himself an instrument — a saxophone, because he thought sax players were cool. Then he got himself a band. Then, and only then, did he learn how to play.

“I kind of learned along the way,” says the sax player for Tower of Power, which will appear at the Birchmere on Saturday. “It’s a good thing my parents were supportive.”

Mr. Castillo was one of the members of Tower of Power when it formed in 1968. Over the years, the group has been known for impressive musicianship and a distinctive horn-driven sound that has persisted despite changes in personnel.

Whatever and wherever they play, Tower of Power’s rhythm is still going to get you moving, keep you moving and take you right to the top of the urban jazz experience. Despite the members’ gray hairs, their signature brand of uptempo funk still sounds fresh.

“Some people say we could play the phone book and it would still sound like Tower of Power,” says Mr. Castillo, who notes the ways the 10 musicians in the group play off one another, creating a “fabric” of sound.

“The music is going to take you there emotionally. We look for people who play from the heart, not from the head.”

So while some of the names have changed, Tower of Power’s trademark energy survives, thanks in no small part to people who were never in the band at all — the audience.

“There’s a certain energy that they bring, and it doesn’t matter how large or small the hall is,” Mr. Castillo says. “If the audience is on fire, you feel it.”

If you’re looking for the source of some of Tower’s power, you’ll need to go back a little further than 1968, back to a time when musicians such as Robert Johnson and Bukka White traveled around playing songs such as “Love Is Vain” and “Glory Bound Train.” Call it the mother of most 20th-century popular music. Rock or jazz, soul or funk, it all springs from a common source, the blues.

• • •

Michael Baytop terms blues “the root of 20th-century popular music.” He learned it sitting at the feet of Archie Edwards at the latter’s legendary barbershop in Northeast. Mr. Baytop plays with blues and hokum artist Rick Franklin at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farmers market tomorrow.

Over the years, Mr. Baytop and Mr. Franklin have found that some folk naturally shrink from hearing the blues, especially the bare-bones acoustic version they play.

“For a lot of people, it has a negative connotation,” Mr. Baytop says. “They say it’s dirty or anti-church. And young people see it as old people’s music.”

Their solution: If the two are playing for the younger set, they just don’t tell them what they’re hearing.

“Everybody’s nodding their head, moving, having a really good time,” Mr. Baytop says. “They’re always surprised when they hear that it’s the blues.”

There’s a lesson in the blues that has to do with more than just the music, the two say. It has to do with life, experience and, they hope, wisdom.

“There used to be a core of older musicians in the area,” Mr. Baytop says. “Flora Molton, John Jackson and the guys who used to come to the barbershop.

“They were really the elder statesmen of blues. Just sitting with them was so cool. They taught you to respect the music and respect yourself. A lot of today’s musicians don’t understand about respect. I’ve seen my attitudes toward life and people change.”

Mr. Franklin, a self-described “Army brat,” found himself entranced by the genre after purchasing a box of used LPs by many of the great bluesmen of the ‘30s.

“I started out playing electric guitar and listening to Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “But once I heard those records, I was hooked.”

What hooked him? The nature of the music itself, he says.

“The blues have universal, timeless themes. They’re about love, work and conflict resolution. You’re not going to have songs about cell phones.”

Getting back to the basics is one reason the blues are such a hit at the farmers market.

“There’s kind of a bond between the music and the vegetables,” Mr. Franklin says. “After all, the blues was originally rural music. The vendors love having us there.”

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