It's a celebration as Kool & the Gang officially reopen the Hollywood Bowl

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 03: Kool & the Gang performs during the first full-capacity concert at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, July 3, 2021. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Kool & the Gang perform Saturday at the first full-capacity concert at the Hollywood Bowl since the start of the pandemic. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Robert “Kool” Bell of Kool & the Gang could’ve used any of the indelible catchphrases he helped create — “Get down on it,” “Oh, what a night,” “Celebrate good times, come on!” — to greet his enthusiastic audience Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

Instead, the founding member of this long-running soul-funk group reached for a new one that turned out to be just as effective.

“Hey, hey, hey, COVID go away,” he said to an approving roar from about 17,000 people in front of him, “’cause we want to play.”

That’s just what Bell and his bandmates did over the holiday weekend as the first act to entertain a full-capacity crowd at Los Angeles’ most iconic venue, which like virtually every other performance space in the country went dark in early 2020 as a result of the pandemic. (Before last year, the Bowl hadn’t called off an entire season in its nearly century-long history.)

Before a packed audience, the shell of the Bowl glows with light 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 small-ish invited audiences of essential workers. But with most of California’s COVID restrictions now lifted, Saturday’s show — the first of two "July 4th Fireworks Spectacular" shows featuring Kool & the Gang and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra — finally brought the mostly maskless masses back to the beloved summer spot nestled in the Cahuenga Pass.

“Hallelujah!” said one concertgoer, Chandra Talley, as she enjoyed the evening with a large group that included her daughter and grandchildren. “It feels wonderful to be back. I’m an L.A. city girl, and this is all of L.A. right here.”

Thourayah Maroun of Fullerton, who sat in a box near the stage with her boyfriend, James Young, went further. “It feels like we’re alive again,” she said. “Being around music again, it sets our hearts on fire.”

The night opened with a rousing performance of patriotic material — including “America the Beautiful” and William Schuman’s “Be Glad Then, America” — by the Bowl’s orchestra, whose conductor, Thomas Wilkins, had his own crowd-pleaser of a greeting at the ready.

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

Wilkins dedicated a rendition of John Williams' "Summon the Heroes" to the healthcare workers who, like veterans, "also made our freedom possible," as he put it. The acknowledgment appeared to touch Noralisa Villareal of Venice, a family medicine physician, who listened as she tearfully embraced her friend Amber Carson.

“This is just such a release after a hard year,” Villareal said during intermission. She and her husband attended one of the Bowl’s limited-capacity concerts, “and it was very nice,” she said. “But I realized that this place is about the people. Seeing everybody back again makes it real.”

In the audience, two women share a hug.
Noralisa Villarreal, right, and 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 evening’s headliners likely could have coasted to a standing ovation.

Yet Kool & the Gang were sharper than they needed to be as the players, nearly all wearing something bedazzled, ran through a quick-moving 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 set to Sousa’s marches.

The band was tight but rowdy, its well-practiced routines — including serenading a female fan named Joanna during “Joanna” — no less satisfying for having been done a zillion times. That it is also easing back into live music after more than a year off 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 counts only a few original members among its dozen or so musicians and dancers. But as with the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire, a kind of continuity has always been built into the group’s propulsive groove, which survived the transition from R&B to disco in the late ’70s and since then has served as fertile source material for countless crate-digging hip-hop producers.

Just last month, Kool & the Gang’s decades-old “Summer Madness” went viral on TikTok. And here, during “Hollywood Swinging,” the group augmented its song with a couple of bars from Mase’s glossy mid-’90s rap hit “Feel So Good,” which prominently samples “Hollywood Swinging.”

Not even the youngest folks in an audience filled with families needed such a context clue to identify the deathless “Celebration,” of course. That one had what sounded like the whole Bowl singing along loudly from the get-go.

“It’s time to come together,” the song declared — familiar old words with vivid new life.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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