Robert “Kool” Bell of Kool & the Gang could have used any of the indelible slogans he helped create: “Go ahead”, “Oh, what a night”, “Celebrate the good times, come on! – to greet his enthusiastic audience on Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

Instead, the founding member of this longtime soul-funk band searched for a new one that proved to be just as effective.

“Hey, hey, hey, COVID is going away,” he said to an approving roar of about 17,000 people in front of him, “because we want to to play. “

That’s exactly what Bell and his band mates did over the holiday weekend as the first act to entertain a crowd at full capacity in LA’s most iconic venue, which like virtually everyone else. representative spaces of the country, the pandemic died out in early 2020. (Until last year, the Bowl hadn’t canceled an entire season in its nearly century-long history.)

In front of a full house, the shell of the Bowl lights up at dusk.

Saturday’s Bowl concert drew a sold-out crowd.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The historic hillside amphitheater began a slow comeback in May with a series of free concerts for a small guest audience of essential workers. But with most of California’s COVID restrictions now lifted, Saturday’s show – the first of two “July 4th Fireworks” shows featuring Kool & the Gang and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra – finally brought the masses back. mostly maskless in the beloved summer spot nestled in the Col de Cahuenga.

“Alleluia!” spectator Chandra Talley said as she enjoyed the evening with a large group including her daughter and grandchildren. “It’s wonderful to be back. I’m a city girl from LA, and it’s all LA here.

Fullerton’s Thourayah Maroun, who was sitting in a dressing room near the stage with her boyfriend, James Young, went further. “It’s like we’re alive again,” she said. “Being around music again sets our hearts on fire. “

The evening opened with a rousing performance of patriotic material – including “America the Beautiful” and “Be Glad Then, America” ​​by William Schuman – by the Bowl Orchestra, whose conductor, Thomas Wilkins, had his own delight in the crowd of a salute at the ready.

“I have two words to say to you: welcome home,” he said as the sun began to set behind the hills.

Wilkins dedicated a rendition of John Williams’ “Summon the Heroes” to healthcare workers who, like veterans, “also made our freedom possible,” as he put it. The recognition seemed to touch Noralisa Villareal of Venice, a family doctor, who listened as she tearfully hugged her friend Amber Carson.

“It’s just such an outing after a tough year,” Villareal said during intermission. She and her husband attended one of the Bowl’s limited capacity concerts, “and it was very enjoyable,” she said. “But I realized that this place is about people. Seeing everyone again makes it real.

In the audience, two women kiss.

Noralisa Villarreal, right, and her friend Amber Carson at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Indeed, the special circumstances of Saturday’s show meant that the night’s headliners could have possibly received a standing ovation.

Still, Kool & the Gang were sharper than they needed to be as players, almost all dressed in something dazzling, ran through a quick set of exuberant dance floor classics, including “Ladies Night”, “Jungle Boogie”, “Fresh”, “Get Down on It” and “Celebration”, which inevitably closed the show after a festive fireworks display placed on the steps of Sousa.

The band was tight but rowdy, their routines well practiced – including the serenade of a fan named Joanna during “Joanna” – no less satisfying having been performed millions of times. Whether he returned to live music after more than a year of hiatus was not at all obvious.

After the death in September of Bell’s brother, Ronald (who formed the group with Robert in New Jersey in the late 1960s), Kool & the Gang has only a few original members among its dozen or so musicians and dancers. But as with the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire, a sort of continuity has always been incorporated into the group’s propulsive groove, which survived the transition from R&B to disco in the late ’70s and has served as its source ever since. fertile for countless hip-hop producers who dig cases.

Just last month, Kool & the Gang’s decades-old “Summer Madness” went viral on TikTok. And here, during “Hollywood Swinging,” the band rounded off their song with a few bars of Mase’s brilliant mid-90s rap hit “Feel So Good,” which samples “Hollywood Swinging” well.

Even the youngest of an audience full of families did not need such a contextual clue to identify the immortal “Celebration”, of course. This one had what sounded like the whole Bowl singing loudly right off the bat.

“It’s time to come together,” the song said – old colloquial words with new, vivid life.

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