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POP MUSIC REVIEW : A FEAST OF HOT R&B; AT KOOL FEST

Times Staff Writer

The annual weekend feast of R&B; at Jack Murphy Stadium has finally outgrown its mislabeling as the local edition of the KOOL Jazz Festival, and not a moment too soon. It’s now a full-fledged Southern California event, drawing a large, stylish crowd--mainly from Los Angeles--that relishes a getaway weekend of open-air, big-name pop-funk.

On Friday and Saturday nights, audiences of about 15,000 and 30,000, respectively, celebrated the KOOL Festival ’85 with such acts as Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross, the Commodores and Jeffrey Osborne. Virtually unpromoted in San Diego, the event has blossomed by default, as it became apparent over the years that the R&B; night of the local KOOL Jazz fest was the only one worth mounting from a financial point of view.

By now, the fest’s knowing audience doesn’t mind at all that the performers are separated from their fans by a football-field length (the stadium forbids any field seating). Two stages keep things moving, there’s a good sound system, and two video screens deliver live-action close-ups that bridge the gap fairly well.

Mainly, the crowd parties heartily in the stands, reacting to the musical high points with a swaying, standing spontaneity and a vocal responsiveness worthy of much more intimate surroundings.

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If Saturday’s crowd was twice the size of Friday’s, so was Saturday’s energy level. From the outset there was a sultry excitement, as the all-female group Klymaxx opened. Shalamar followed, and hit hard with such pop-soulful material as “My Girl Loves Me,” with vocalists Howard Hewett, Micki Free and Delisa Davis playing up their sex-symbol roles to fine effect.

So did Midnight Star. Taking the stage Saturday after dark, the nine-member group roused the crowd with a varied range of funky rave-ups, climaxing with the jubilant “No Parking on the Dance Floor.” It was the perfect warm-up for Patti LaBelle, who skipped out, to shrieks of appreciation, in elegant sequined black.

She hit an early stride, mixing ballads and uptempos from a polished contemporary repertoire. LaBelle got jolts of crowd response, applause sustained through songs, when she indulged her insistent, repeating wails and whoops, her gospel rant--the Philly-soul essence of her style.

Vintage LaBelle such as “Lady Marmalade” finally gave way to a timeless, crowd-killing “Over the Rainbow,” notes wailed and held to bursting, enthralling the crowd. She left the stage in Roman triumph, taking a little victory lap. Great stuff.

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And not easy to follow, but Vandross, the festival closer, has resources. A big, elegant man, Vandross doesn’t oversell, letting his talents as singer-writer-arranger establish authority. He opened with a chugging, assured “ ‘Till My Baby Comes Home.” He then announced, “I’m gonna sing every song I know. By the time I’m done it’ll be September,” and the crowd was his, swooning and cheering him on as he worked his burly tenor over his uptown-gospel love ballads and smooth-swinging dance tempos.

Friday night’s show went smoothly too, with the Gap Band, Dazz Band, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Jeffrey Osborne, and the Commodores, whose crowd-pleasing rendition of their silky smash “Night Shift” conclusively proved they can withstand the departure of Lionel Richie.

But it was Osborne who scored the night’s most memorable moment, with a surprising version of the USA For Africa anthem, “We Are The World,” which featured a skillful young singer, Joe Williams, who was able to simulate the song’s signature solo vocals by the likes of Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.


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