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Pop Review : Kool & The Gang Go For Flash But Lack Sizzle

June 23, 1986|DUNCAN STRAUSS

There's something slightly incongruous about a band still touring behind an album called "Emergency" that's 2 years old. But if Kool & The Gang disagree with Webster's definition that an emergency "demands immediate action"--like a new record--the group's concert Saturday at the Pacific Amphitheatre showed that flashiness can help overcome staleness.

The New Jersey-based band wasted no time establishing that its performance would be big on dazzling displays: The show opened with a lighting rig disguised as a spaceship (or was it vice-versa?) descending to the stage floor and dropping off a glowing alien creature. Not established was just what this Spielbergian spectacle had to do with the rest of the show.

Indeed, everything else about the evening had a specific purpose and was planned to the last detail--even if it didn't always seem that way initially. Toward the end of one ballad, for instance, lead vocalist James (J.T.) Taylor told the crowd that "Johnny Carson would appreciate that I'm looking for Joanna." What sounded like a non-sequitur worthy of Groucho Marx turned out to be a slick segue into the Gang's 1983 hit "Joanna."

The fact that Kool & The Gang operated as an efficient, well-oiled R&B machine was both pro and con. On the plus side, the outfit offered plenty of snappy choreography and switched musical gears--particularly during a medley of their 1970s hits--with impressive precision.

The downside was that the eight-man band was so rehearsed, so inclined to deliver its music by rote, that nothing was left to chance. This complete lack of spontaneity imposed a cap on just how inspired--and inspiring--the performance could become.

However, this mattered little to the audience, partly because the Gang is quite skillful at generating superficial excitement. Propelled by Robert (Kool) Bell's thick, bouncy bass lines, dance floor favorites like "Emergency" "Ladies Night," "Misled" and "Celebration" had the crowd on its feet boppin' most of the night.

Taylor, a highly animated and engaging front man despite a tendency to gush lounge-lizard cliches ("Do you feel the love in the air?"), provided a much-needed focus for a presentation that otherwise would have been too busy and cluttered.

Toward the end of the evening, he declared, "It's all about having a good time!" If that--rather than truly stirring music which probes issues or elicits poignant emotions--was the objective, then Friday's concert was a success.

Actor-comic Damon Wayans, a frequent performer this season on "Saturday Night Live," opened the show with 25 minutes of stand-up comedy.

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