An 80-degree, partly cloudy evening set the stage for what would develop into an unforgettable night of classic funk and soul music at Wolf Trap National Park’s Filene Center in Vienna, Va. on May 30.
A rare superstar double-bill featuring Grammy-winning artists Chaka Khan and Kool & The Gang, attracted a sold-out crowd of primarily baby boomer, sprinkled with millennials interested enough to learn first-hand why their parents’ music remains so eternal.
Though Chaka opened the show, she was no ordinary opening act. She quickly turned the heat up on headliners Kool & The Gang by delivering a series of stellar tunes from her years as lead singer of Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, and as a successful solo act. The Chicago-born singer reminded the audience that she still possesses uniquely powerful, multi-octave vocal pipes more than 40 years after her national debut. She opened with “Do You Love What You Feel,” went into the Prince-penned “I Feel For You”—in 1983, the first R&B tune featuring rap music, and “Earth Song (Heavens Keeper).”
Those tunes set the mood for what developed into a special evening featuring one of the world’s premier pop vocalists, bar none. Chaka has now been crowned the “Queen of Funk”—a well-earned honor, indeed.
The Chaka Khan clinic continued throughout the evening, as sunshine gave way to a sparkling moonlit evening. In addition to her bandleader and bassist, Melvin Lee Davis, the small four-piece tightly-knit band provided just enough crispy funk and nasty soul, reminiscent of her original band, Rufus. Another trio of tunes, “I’m a Woman,” “Whatcha Gonna Do For Me” and “Papillion,” allowed young drummer phenom Ronald Bruner Jr. several opportunities to display his polyrhythmic, syncopated accents that perfectly accompanied the legendary singer.
The audience reaction to Chaka’s “Through the Fire” was especially remarkable. The audience (primarily the ladies), strongly reacted to the love ballad, which has developed into an anthem of sorts for women and their ability to overcome life’s struggles.
During a brief intermission for Chaka, bassist Davis provided a melodic solo that reflected some of the classic wah-wah effects ala William “Bootsy” Collins, mainly in upper-neck portions of his electric bass. Unfortunately, Chaka never introduced any of her band members, or her trio of superb background lady singers. An unfamiliar ballad called “Still” continued the Chaka set, in addition to a new millennium cut called, “Angel.” But it was her 1970s retroactive look at “Everlasting Love,” “Please Pardon Me,” and “Stay” that brought down the proverbial house.
The sweet sounds of the rhythm guitar’s reggae-flavored introduction to “Sweet Thang” evoked screams of joy from Chaka’s largely female audience members. She ended the night with the jazz classic, “My Funny Valentine,” the very funky “Tell Me Something Good”—penned by Stevie Wonder—and another ladies’ anthem, “I’m Every Woman,” a hit later recorded by Whitney Houston as a tribute to her idol, Chaka.
“I’d really like to continue playing, but I really have to go,” said the sveltely shaped Ms. Khan, obviously several pounds lighter than just a few years ago. It was very apparent she was having a grand ole time. She repeatedly said, “Hello D.C.” and eventually noted how much she enjoys playing the D.C. region. Her final song, “Ain’t Nobody,” with its signature keyboard lines, caused all to stand on their feet and provide her a well-deserved standing ovation for a job well done.
By 9:45p.m., Jersey City, N.J’s own Robert “Kool” Bell on bass guitar and his 11 bandsmen, comfortably clad with white sparkled sheer outfits, hit the stage. Realizing that the stage was still burning hot with Chaka’s outstanding performance, the Kool fellows smartly played it cool, by offering a series of their more mellow, danceable hits from the ’80s, namely “Fresh,” “Tonight” and “Misled.” However, those tunes conjured memories of James “JT” Taylor, their former lead singer whose signature smooth vocals and snappy dance moves remain stamped on the Kool & The Gang brand.
An unidentified new singer/guitarist currently fills Taylor’s role—JT reportedly left the band amicably to pursue an ill-fated solo career. Unconfirmed reports, however, hold that JT and the band’s split was based on money and other contractual issues. Perhaps JT should re-consider rejoining the band, which could certainly utilize his presence again.
Meanwhile, the Kool show persists without Taylor, and the Wolf Trap show continued with a barrage of their past hits including, “Joanna.” Original member Dennis “DT” Thomas asked what the crowd was dancing to in the 1970s, and he boldly answered his own question with “James Brown,” which led the guitarist to the signature intro to “Funky Stuff,” bringing the throng of concertgoers into their first standing ovation for the Kool Guys. It was at that point when the Chaka effect had finally worn off, and the crowd was finally fully involved with the Kool & The Gang show.
“Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” followed, and the six-piece horn section was finally able to shine like the horn-driven band of old, featuring original horn man Ronald “Khalis” Bell on tenor sax, DT on alto sax, trumpeter Michael Ray and two other unnamed trumpeters. Those previously-named tunes signified the hard-core funk of the Gang’s pre-Disco success. Sadly, the Gang still mourns their original trombonist Clifford Adams and original trumpeter, Robert “Spike” Mickens.
With the recent death of funk bassist Louis Johnson, one had to reflect on the fact that “Kool” Bell was one of R&B’s first identifiable bass players, along with Sly Stone’s Larry Graham, way before Motown ever considered shining lights on the great James Jamerson. But, by the mid-1970s, bass men like Bootsy, Nathanial Phillips, Nate Watts, “Ready Freddy” Washington, Mark Adams (Slave) and even Stanley Clarke were finally getting their just due. But, Kool’s 1969 self-titled single release stands the test of time, and the group played the horn-lines from their first hit during one of their jams on this special evening. The melody snippet was quite subtle—just enough to be recognized by original Kool/Gang fans.
An abbreviated version of “Summer Madness” featured an electrifying keyboard soloist and gave homage to the band’s original jazz chops when they were first known the Jazziacs. The tune served as the perfect introduction to the vocally-intuitive “Cherish.”
The night concluded with the all-time girls’ anthem “Ladies Night,” “Get Down On It” and “Celebration,” the upbeat tune that introduced us to the new world order of the 1980s and the trickle-down theories of President Ronald Reagan. And then the show was over at exactly 11 o’clock.
In reflection, in the terms of an athletic event, what appeared to be a massive victory by Chaka and her band turned out to be a fabulous recovery by the Kool clan. They purposely started slow and methodical, and by the time it was all over, they had re-claimed their territory and the night was a totally unforgettable, historic evening of classic soul, funk, jazz, pop and more.