It was shocking enough when Van Halen announced live dates with David Lee Roth this year. But the group's choice of pop-funk favorites Kool and the Gang as opening act only raised more eyebrows.
Maybe it isn't that strange, though: When we saw the two bands together earlier this year at Madison Square Garden in New York, the question marks were removed and our fears that mullet-wearing, beer-bellied boors would shout for "Jump" over the strains of "Celebration" proved unfounded. These are two seasoned acts that know how to ratchet up energy levels on stage, with deep catalogs full of gems beyond the mainstream hit songs that might trap them.
Bandleader Robert "Kool" Bell is currently assembling a dream team of players for a forthcoming solo album that might be titled Just Kool; right now, he has an eye toward working with Bootsy Collins, Nile Rodgers, Charlie Wilson, and Eddie Van Halen. We recently spoke to him via telephone about the unlikely road trip he's been on this year. Kool and the Gang opens for Van Halen this Sunday, June 3, at Oracle Arena, and next Tuesday, June 5, at HP Pavilion in San Jose.
How on Earth did you end up on this tour with Van Halen?
Last August, we played outside of London for the Glastonbury Music Festival. There were a lot of rock groups like U2 and Coldplay and Paul Simon, [which] played on Sunday in the afternoon. And we played in the evening along with Beyoncé. We had about 60,000 people, and we really, really rocked 'em.
David Lee saw the show and he went back to Live Nation and Eddie and Alex [Van Halen], and said, 'Look, I've got the group that I want to open up for our tour. And they said, "Who?" And he said, "Kool and the Gang." They said, "Do you think that'll work? It's a hell of a pair, Kool and the Gang and Van Halen." He said, "Yeah, but I feel like it'll be a great show."
So we were rehearsing back in February for the show, and he said, "Van Halen was the party rock band of the Eighties. Kool and the Gang was the party pop funk band of the Eighties. Sixty percent of our fans are ladies, and you guys wrote the song 'Ladies' Night.' So why not? Let's go out and have a party!" So that's what we've been doing since the beginning of the tour.
It's a really unexpected combination, but I thought it worked so well together when I saw you at Madison Square Garden.
Oh yeah, but that was just the beginning of the tour and we've been all across the country since the Garden!
David Lee Roth said at that show that Van Halen used to play Kool and the Gang covers when they first started. Did you know about that?
Yeah, he told me that, too. He said back in the '70s they'd play a lot of clubs in L.A. -- Whisky A Go Go and a few others -- and they'd play "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie" and "Funky Stuff" when they were coming up, when they were getting started. Which I didn't know, so that was quite interesting as well.
We think of some of those records as foundational songs for styles like hip-hop, but they obviously had a much wider international reach. How does it feel to have had an influence in many different sounds?
You never know who you're reaching, because you're busy! You know, especially for the last 30, 40 years. We have songs like "Tonight" that have a slight rock edge to them and we have them in our show as well, and then you have songs like "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie" being done by groups like Van Halen and it's been a great feeling in putting us all together.
Has anything crazy happened during this tour?
Well, it's been pretty cool actually! Pretty mellow. Well, we've tried to get around a couple of tornadoes, but other than that, it's been fine.
Human tornadoes, or actual tornadoes?
We saw one, it was at a distance and we had to go around. We had to stop because it was coming down really hard, but we got around it.
Do you get the impression that everyone in Van Halen has been getting along during this tour?
Well, so far -- they did the first leg, the first leg ends next month on June 26. They were going to do a second leg, but they just canceled the second leg, I don't know if you heard about that. There was going to be a summer tour, but they wanted to take a break so they canceled the summer tour. So I think they want to go to Europe, Japan, and Australia on the second leg now.
Were you nervous about this tour or did it just always feel right from the beginning?
We had some concerns in the beginning, not knowing how Van Halen's fans were going to take to what we do. I think a lot of people [don't know the name]; they'll be like, "Kool and the Gang, who's that? Oh, 'Celebration,' they did that song? Oh, 'Hollywood Swinging,' they did that song?" And that's what we've been seeing in the audience is that they're surprised, they didn't know we did all those songs.
A lot of people might not know the name, but your music is just a part of the fabric of happy times in a lot of people's lives, like hearing "Celebration" at a wedding.
"Celebration" is a popular wedding song. [laughs]
Do you ever get tired of playing "Celebration"?
Ah, no! Because whenever we play "Celebration," it's at the end of the show, and the energy level is so up with us and the crowd, it just keeps you going. It's like every time you play it you get the same energy. It just makes you drive harder 'cause the crowd is driving you and you're driving the crowd.
It must give you a boost to feel that energy at the end of each show.
And with this tour here, we've prepared them for Van Halen!