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Kool & the Gang blazes through Urban Fest with hard funk, smooth soul

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 30, 2014

Around 8 p.m. on Friday night a respectable crowd had Butler Park, the temporary location for this year’s Urban Music Festival at roughly half capacity. Folk were still making their way in for Kool & the Gang’s headline set but the word on the ground (and in the food court) was that crowds were more robust on Friday for SWV and Morris Day and the Time. As my husband wisely pointed out, despite the fact that Kool & the Gang was playing a fiftieth anniversary set — the band originally formed in 1964 — there was no telling which band members might actually be in town for the show. With Morris Day and the Time, at least you know you’re getting Morris Day.

Nonetheless, the moment the band took the stage shortly after 9 p.m. the crowd, who sat politely through a solid opening set from Larry Braggs and only tolerated Cupid’s aspirations to be “line dance king” when he dropped his signature “Shuffle,” was immediately swept up in the excitement. Chairs were abandoned and the front of the stage and the fence around the stage front V.I.P. area were suddenly crowded. The band, a 10-piece ensemble which did include original members Robert “Kool” Bell on bass, his brother Ronald Bell on saxophone and George Brown on drums and keys launched into the 1985 hit “Fresh” sung by vocalist and guitarist Shawn McQuiller. McQuiller, alongside fellow vocalist Lavell Evans look like their combined ages might total slightly more than the five decades in the group’s history, but not by much.

But if the vocalists’ youth was jarring it also underlined an indisputable fact, Kool & the Gang’s strength is as a relentless, go for broke groove-making machine. In an era of diva songbirds and superstar crooners there was something utterly refreshing about seeing a rock solid ensemble whose young vocalists clearly understood that their role was to showcase the group’s elder statesmen, the monster instrumentalists holding it down.

This was apparent during the ‘80s tracks that opened the set, smooth R&B grooves with funky backbeats, but when the band dipped back into their ‘70s material, the hard funk stuff they blew the roof off. Demolishing a deep pocket, bass-slapping, horn-blasting genre-defining rendition of “Jungle Boogie” and seguing into an equally brutal “Hollywood Swinging,” Kool and crew righteously defended their place in the pantheon of funk legends, not that anyone in the crowd needed convincing. Hands were raised, booties shook and despite a slight chill in the air the band kept it hot, hot, hot.

After a down tempo exploration of the band’s “Kool jazz collection,” notably “Cherish” the band took it out on a high note. Dropping a series high energy hits starting with “Ladies Night” then a slamming extended version of “Get Down on It” they built to the obvious climax, the band’s most memorable hit “Celebration.” The audience’s collective heart was already in the band’s hands, but to make it all a bit more personal the band brought special guests, four members of the youth ensemble Soulectiv Phunk, young Austin R&B artists who had performed earlier in the evening to the stage to join in the final jam.

At 10:20 p.m. the band took their final bow, and as the audience streamed towards the gates the majority of the crowd probably missed the city’s proclamation that March 29, 2014 was “Kool and the Gang Day” in Austin, Texas. But odds are they already knew.