I admit it: When I got the chance to talk to Robert Bell -- that's Kool -- of Kool & the Gang ahead of tonight's show at Ak-Chin Pavilion, I couldn't resist asking the obvious question, much as I usually try to avoid them: Hey, how and why are you touring with Kid Rock?
The answer I got: Because touring with Van Halen went so well.
As it turns out, that's completely accurate, but it didn't quite get to the root of their presence on Kid Rock's $20 Best Night Ever Tour. To his eternal credit, Kool powered through, continuing to explain the very simple bonds tying them together until I finally figured it out.
Even in their heyday, after all, Kool & The Gang genre-bended with abandon. "We kind of felt whatever the groove was at the time," he says. "The '70s were more funk . . . and some jazz songs. 'Jungle Boogie' or 'Funky Stuff' or 'Hollywood Swingin'.' We didn't really have a lead singer at that time . . . We had the Kool & The Gang style of swinging, but in 1979, we made a change again, and decided to get a lead singer," which led to a run of poppier '80s hits like "Celebration."
"During that time we also had a couple AOR records," he tells me, unsolicited. "So we had a combination of different styles. Funk, pop, rock . . ." Kool describes the Gang's career as an "evolution," which isn't an uncommon musician turn of phrase. But he's careful to call it an "evolution of music" -- it's not just a band changing, but a band changing with the times while maintaining its own sound.
Even the songs evolved with the times; as a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I was first introduced to "Celebration" in its capacity as the official rally song of the World Series-winning 1982 team all my childhood favorites were compared to and found wanting. When they play "Celebration" live, it's a fair bet that most members of the crowd have their own, distinct personal connection to it.
"It's great to have a song like that," he says. "It's the type of record that's hard to repeat . . . I mean, there was other songs called 'Celebrate' and 'Celebration,' but ours seemed to stand the test of time."
Which gets us close to the really obvious reason Kool & The Gang will be playing Kid Rock's $20 Best Night Ever Tour.
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First, the practical reason: David Lee Roth of Van Halen saw Kool & The Gang at the 2011 Glastonbury festival and decided they'd make the perfect support act. It might have caught Kool and company off-guard, but not for long: "In the '70s and '80s, they were known as the rock/pop party band, and we were known as the funk/pop party band.
"[Roth] said, '50 percent of my audience are ladies, and you guys wrote the song 'Ladies Night,' so let's go out and have a party.' And that's what happened, for 48 shows."
I'd like to think the extremely obvious connection between Kool & The Gang and Kid Rock's $20 Best Night Ever Tour clicked for me before that moment, but I can't confirm it. In any case, he went on. "Kid Rock has a little hip-hop flavor going on in some of his songs, and of course he's got his country rock... it's been a nice flow, because we start our show off with our [rock] side . . . then we get funky in the end."
The response so far has been good. "Kid Rock's crowd has definitely been partying with us. At the beginning they're kind of listening to see what's going on, you know . . . but by the time we get to 'Ladies Night,' it's a party."
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And a party that isn't as unfamiliar to Kid Rock's fans as they may start off thinking. "You can kind of see the expressions on the audience's faces . . . 'Oh, they did that? They did that? They did that one, too?'"