Los Angeles, CA- There was no way I was going to miss Kool and the Gang, Morris Day and the Time, and the Village People at the Hollywood Bowl. In a very real sense, Kool and the Gang simply *is* music to me – their sound jumping out from one of my earliest memories. There I was, standing in a now-defunct Canadian theme park for reasons unclear, when I heard the most amazing thing I’d ever encountered: “Celebration.” I was long convinced that it was the official song of amusement parks, where you would indeed bring your good times and your laughter, too.
Now that I’m in the midst of a full-blown retro obsession with Casey Kasem’s 70’s and 80’s American Top 40 countdowns thanks to iHeartRadio, I’ve rediscovered my early love for funk and disco. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, I had a hard time convincing people that they should join me for the opportunity to do the Y.M.C.A. with their 17,500 closest friends. All I can say to that is that the people who shot me down absolutely missed out on a show that was unabashedly fun and lighthearted. Though I expected masses of people to be in their disco finery, surprisingly few dressed up and fewer still wore full Village People getups. I should have packed my cowboy hat and bell bottoms.
The night started with the Village People, who started their set far earlier than you would expect for a non-orchestral concert. I’d barely cleared the long lines for the new metal detectors and passed the guard I was sure was going to search my mini-pizza box when their first song began. Pizza in hand, I dashed the rest of the way to my seat – dodging picnic baskets and stray wine bottles.
I settled in for an unironic festival of cheese and was sharply disappointed by how short the Village People’s set was. Anyone willing to pay money to see these guys wants MORE strutting, not less. They danced and sang as a DJ mixed from the side of the stage. Now, a danger with older groups who have become cultural touchstones is that they can often seem like a parody of themselves, and the reality is that their outfits today evoke a combination of Halloween costumes and bachelorette party strippers. They’ve also lost the sweaty and slightly unwashed intensity and urgency of the late 70s. Still, even though time may have slowed them down a bit and cost them a few original members, how can you not love a group that manages to be both a gay icon and a favorite of elementary school parties?
They played a handful of greatest hits, including a crowd-pleasing rendition of “In the Navy” dedicated to the armed forces. And of course I can now die happy since I’ve been part of the aforementioned dance to “Y.M.C.A.” with my 17,500 closest friends. You really haven’t lived unless you’ve done something this goofy. The group described the dance’s origins on American Bandstand and explained that they now see all sorts of variations. Urging the crowd to its feet, they gave a lesson in proper Y.M.C.A. letter formation, particularly the “C.” “No, your other left!” Rainbow lighting illuminated the concert shell as thousands of fans formed the letters in unison. Unfortunately, the Village People were done so soon that anyone who’d been stuck in the morass of parking and traffic completely missed them.
Next, Morris Day and the Time took the stage to the sound of a Prince instrumental, asking the audience if we loved Prince. The answer, of course, was yes – the crowd jumped up and cheered. Day plays to the crowd that loved his “Purple Rain” villain, preening in his fabulous suit and attended by his own mirror holder and overcoat handler. Showing my age, I had moments when his band’s moves reminded me of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” video and the acolytes made me think of P. Diddy’s umbrella holder, Fonzworth Bentley. I had to keep telling myself that it was the other way around – that he and the musicians of his era influenced those performers & their showmanship.
As with the first act, his performance was too short. Not counting the instrumental intro and a smooth and soulful number crooned by his son, he had roughly the same amount of songs as the Village People. While I am less familiar with his body of work, I enjoyed the entire set. Even the numbers I didn’t know had a fabulous funkiness that kept the audience moving to the rhythm. The band also made sartorial statements with their fabulous outfits, featuring dapper suits, pocket squares, and hats. Highlights included a shiny purple guitar and a bold, sparkling blue vest. Morris Day hams it up throughout his show, and the crowd loved it. He also acknowledged his fans by bringing a group up to dance on stage. He knows his shtick is a crowd pleaser, and he seems to have fun doing it.
Finally, the stage revolved to reveal Kool and the Gang’s instruments as a video flashed images of all the movie soundtracks that had featured their songs. There was indeed a gang of performers, including so many band members, singers, and dancers going on and off stage that we lost count somewhere north of a dozen and never could quite figure out how many total musicians there were. During the course of the evening, they acknowledged which performers were original members – and interestingly those were the only names from Kool and the Gang listed in the Hollywood Bowl program. The stage was filled with a mix of incredible old-school musicians and bandmates a fraction of their age. The brass section in particular owned the night.
Unfortunately for me, this core of old timers did not include their singer. While their current vocalist performed admirably and kept the crowd engaged, he just doesn’t have the rich voice I remember from my childhood. Nevertheless, he kept the crowd’s enthusiasm level high, calling out for everyone to sing along with “Cherish” and saying, “I don’t care if you sound like a wet cat out there.” That’s a pretty accurate description of my singing, so I enthusiastically joined in. Meow.
Overall, their performance had two themes: funk and sparkles. Every outfit sparkled, glittered, and shined like its own disco ball. My friend summed it up perfectly: “Where on earth do you find so much bling? It’s like someone called up the sparkle fairy and sprinkled sparkle dust on them.” The saturated colors of the lighting bounced off the glittery outfits. As you can probably imagine, I loved it.
The music was funky, vibrant, and as fresh as ever. With so many musicians (including 2 drummers), the sound was layered and rich. Yes, there was indeed a party going on right there on stage with a celebration to last throughout the evening. Well, until about 10:30. This set, too, was far too short for my taste. While the Bowl has a curfew to avoid disturbing the neighbors too much – and you could briefly see on the video screens that the clock at the front of the stage had hit zero – the show certainly ended sooner than others I’ve attended in the past. None of the acts played their full standard sets, so it felt almost more like a teaser than a full show. I’m glad I’ve seen each group, but Kool and the Gang is the one I’d pay to see again. Just for longer next time.