Gang's all here

Posted: July 05, 2013

WHAT'S A heritage funk-pop troupe like Kool & the Gang doing, sharing a tour and Susquehanna Bank Center bill (Tuesday) with roughneck country-rock character Kid Rock and his rap 'n' roll buddy Uncle Kracker?

Adjusting nicely and having a fine time, to hear tell from Gang leader Robert "Kool" Bell in a call from the road.

On paper, this combo platter might read like a recipe for indigestion, a clash of cultures that could set back race relations 40 years.

"And for sure, there are a fair number of 'country crackers' coming to the show," laughed the funkstitution's still-Kool-at-62 leader/bassist. "But those guys like to tailgate and dance, have a good time, just like us. We've only got 50 minutes onstage, so we're concentrating on the harder, party-hearty stuff. And everybody's getting into it."

Change-up pitchers

Surveying their recent album output likewise demonstrates that Kool & the Gang are nothing if not flexible, ready to adjust to the situation and audience at hand. Truthfully, that's key to their almost five decades of steady work as a touring/recording entity.

One recent concert set (2010's "Kool & the Gang: Legends Live") emphasized the smooth soul confections like "Joanna" and "Cherish" they put out in the 10-year run (1978-87) with James "J.T." Taylor as lead singer. (The gang now splits the singing load among four members.)

By contrast, their 2009 "Live at Montreux" set emphasized the 12-piece band's jamming, funky side, harking back to their mid-1960s roots in Jersey City as the Afro-jazz rooted Jazziacs. "At Montreux, we let our four horn players and our guitar man Shawny Mac (McQuiller) stretch out on the more riffin' tunes," noted their leader, referencing classic Kool & the Gang boogie anthems like "Get Down On It," "Jungle Boogie," their "Saturday Night Fever" disco dalliance "Open Sesame" and globally collosal signature song "Celebration," lead-authored by Kool's younger brother and bandmate Ronald Bell (a/k/a Khalis Bayyan).

Oh, and to demonstrate that the guys still have their finger on today's music pulse, they also dished a set called "Star Party" in 2010 re-recording and re-configuring the catalog hits with guest artists such as soul chanteuse Ashanti, reggae crooner Jimmy Cliff and rappers Bounty Killer and Lil' Kim. "And next year, for our 50th anniversary, we're planning an all-new music album with friends like Alicia Keys and R. Kelly helping out," tipped Kool. "We're also putting out our first-ever Christmas album this winter."

Hardly novices to the hip-hop world, Kool & the Gang get cited as the second-most sampled funk band of all times - rivaled only by their early inspiration James Brown. Most notably, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince lifted K&G's "Summer Madness" for "Summertime," while Bad Boy rapper Mase's international hit "Feel So Good" owed a lot to the Gang's "Hollywood Swinging." On their current tour, Kool's rapping offspring Prince Hakim adds currency to some band classics, "and also mixes it up some with Uncle Kracker," said dad.

Party invitations

The roots of Kool & the Gang's mash-up with Kid Rock - and before that, an equally unexpected 48-date run of shows last year opening for hard rocking Van Halen - go back to K&G's gig two summers back at Glastonbury, the massive British festival that convened last weekend.

"There's a lot less concern in Europe about mixing different kinds of music," explained Kool. "We were sharing the Glastonbury stage closing night with Paul Simon and Beyonce. David Lee Roth was there watching. He then went back to Eddie and Alex [Van Halen] and said, 'I have the perfect act to support us - Kool & the Gang.' They started scratching their heads. And so did [Van Halen reunion tour promoter] Live Nation. But Roth was persistent, really pushed for us. He reminded the other guys that when Van Halen was coming up, they played our tunes 'Jungle Boogie' and 'Hollywood Swinging.' He also pointed out that in the '80s they were the top rock-party band, and us guys were the hot funk-pop party band. And that half of Van Halen's fans are ladies, who'd get a kick from hearing 'Ladies Night.' "

When the Van Halen/Kool & the Gang package hit Detroit last winter, Kid Rock came to listen. He'd been talking about going out on tour with Sammy Hagar. But when he saw Kool & the Gang connect the party-vibe dots to Van Halen's power-rock followers, he sensed the funksters would also sync well with the populist, genre-mashing "Rebel Soul" theme of his latest tour and album.

The price is right

Kid Rock also is giving a big bear hug to all with the populist pricing for this summer tour, selling all tickets - first row to the back of the lawn - at the typical outdoor/unreserved rate of $20. "He's really sending his fans the message 'I'm looking out for you,' " said Kool. "Shows are so expensive, just getting there is expensive. So he's rolling back the prices, taking a hit but selling out every night." Reportedly, the headliner also is making ends meet with a slice of the beer sales.

How about Kool & the Gang? "We had to adjust our prices a little," said the frontman. "We don't get a piece of the concessions. But it's all working out. We've never done rock tours like this before."

And P.S. - Kool & the Gang have also earned the opening slot for the Dave Matthews Band at Hershey Park Stadium on July 13.

Stay kool, guys.

Susquehanna Bank Center, Harbour Boulevard, Camden, 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, $20, 800-745-3000,

Hershey Park Stadium, 100 W. Hersheypark Drive, Hershey, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 13, $40.75, $56.50, $75, 717-534-3911,



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