10.05.07 - L.A. Times - Pop Music Review

Kid Creole & the Coconuts

Fourteen years after their last L.A. show, Kid Creole & the Coconuts return.
By Richard Cromelin, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 5, 2007

Virtually any performance by a pop-music act fits somewhere in the context of a career arc -- a new band trying to find an audience, a flowering favorite hitting its stride and packing them in, a still-vital veteran trying to keep the fire burning, a period-bound hitmaker resigned to nostalgic ritual.

And there comes a time for some when the fight's been fought and the battle lost, when even going through the motions isn't an option. That was the case in the mid-'90s with Kid Creole & the Coconuts. The band's sophistication and ambition had drawn a cult following in the 1980s, but it finally succumbed as a presence in the U.S. after failing to connect with more than that core.

But the group went into hibernation, rather than extinction, and on Wednesday the charismatic, Cab Calloway-styled bandleader Kid Creole (a.k.a. Bronx-bred August Darnell, 57) put on his purple zoot suit and brought the group, including the latest incarnation of the backup vocal trio the Coconuts, back from oblivion to play its first Los Angeles show in 14 years.

Since the outfit has no immediate career aims, and there's no more to the agenda than affirming that it still does exist, the show at the Key Club lacked an edge of urgency -- an exhibition game rather than a playoff contest.

And even before it started, things didn't look promising. The small West Hollywood club wasn't exactly packed, and the dance floor was filled with folding chairs -- not the best idea for a show by one of pop's most persuasive dance bands. And the group itself was a little shaky at first, playing without the old snap and sizzle.

But as Kid Creole -- taunted by the three leggy Coconuts from his right and prodded by his longtime percussionist, Bongo Eddie, on his left -- asserted his personality and danced with the dash of a man half his age, things became sharper and stronger. For much of the nearly 90 minutes, it was a good enough revival of the witty, giddy swirl that fans remember.

Darnell's vision was a hybrid of the old big bands and Latin orchestras, disco-rooted dance music and a bit of Broadway. In the great Kid Creole albums of the 1980s, especially "Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places," "Wise Guy" and "Doppelganger," he created an ongoing tropical comic opera that confronted the battle of the sexes, social injustice and racial dynamics, among other topics.

Kid Creole started Wednesday's show with something more recent, segueing from the 1990 single "I Love Girls" into "The Sex of It," the funk song Prince wrote and arranged for him in the same year in an attempt to get him some radio play. The nearly 90-minute set had a few slow spots, but as the 13 musicians pulled out one infectious favorite after another -- "Endicott," "Stool Pigeon," "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy" -- the breadth and depth of Darnell's unique language worked their spell.

The devotees who feel that hits and halls of fame, not obscurity, should be his fate danced and sang along, but the reality of the situation planted a sadness in the celebration. One of his song titles says it all: There's something wrong in paradise.