There is perhaps no live show you can go to that is more deeply joyful and soul-affirming than a funk show with a big crowd. When the band is on, connecting, you can look across the audience and see your whole community groove together. When they go into a hit, like a Prince show when they hit those first notes of “1999” or P-Funk doing the intro to “Flash Light”, the whole place bounces. And when Kool & The Gang hit those opening notes of “Hollywood Swingin'” at the Hollywood Bowl, what had been a fairly sedate, respectful concert audience for the ballad and mind-blowing instrumental portion of the show, got out of its chairs to dance. It had just occurred to me minutes earlier that this moment was coming, and it met my expectations. BOUNCE!
This is a band with a history that stretches back so long, they had to change their name from Kool & The Flames to avoid getting into any mess with James Brown, who had the Famous Flames at the time. Mid-sixties. Bassist Robert “Kool” Bell is the one who goes all the way back, and while it’s tempting to check Wikipedia for how many of the current members have been around how long, it doesn’t really matter. Some appear to be around my age and have probably been there a while, some maybe younger. The thing that struck me, much as when Toots & The Maytals played at the Bowl a while back, these bands are like apprenticeships, and the young ones are learning how to play it properly from someone who WAS there in the old days. So it doesn’t really matter which player has been in there two years, ten years or thirty, the show you’re seeing tonight is still masterful, true to the way it was played in the old days. Everyone up there is a badass, capable of soloing under the spotlight, and capable of disappearing into the groove when the spotlight is on the audience, and we are dancing.
I’d seen the band a decade earlier as the support for Van Halen, where they crushed it in a 45-minute slot, leaving us warmed up and ready to party more. This headline-length set was just as fabulous. Some of the tunes like “Jungle Boogie” did get fluffed out with solos, but when the players can play funky like this, you want them to keep going. The instrumentals, reminiscent of Average White Band at their hottest, were exquisite, tight as a drum but just the right amount of floppy. And that closing segment of “Ladies’ Night”, “Hollywood Swingin'”, “Get Down On It” and “Celebration” saw the temperature get turned up on us to the point where the non-existent roof was on fire.
The opening set by the Village People, this edition led by lead vocalist Victor Willis, showed the other side of the coin, of running a vintage act with one original member. While they may have been something a novelty in their day, all the people in the original Village People had some degree of singing ability, panache and showmanship superior to to your average high school show choir. This cannot be said for the group Willis has surrounded himself with today. Let’s be honest, no one is expecting a reunion of lots of the original members, and Willis claims that the very first VP records are sung entirely by him, so “if you want to know who is the real original Village People, it’s ME!” Fair enough. His own performance is okay, a little shouty and he doesn’t pretend to dance anymore, but it sounds like him. If he was in the company of people who could do the job, I might have given him a good review.
But the whole thing falls flat when those BIG CHORUSES become tiny because no one up there will sing them with power and volume. Nor can they evidently dance, not that they have been given any moves. Sorry to be nit-picking, but it IS a show group. Their main thing is supposedly the ability to sing and dance. Scoring a costume Indian headdress and having the gall to dance around in it in 2023 is not enough.
The big ending of “In The Navy” into “YMCA” was okay, at least they stuck the landing as the various members managed to find a little bar-room gusto to sing along. Maybe, like the audience, those were the ones where they could remember the words.