On a classic hot summer night in The Woodlands, Texas, a sold-out crowd of (at least) 16,000 people found their choice to brave 100-degree heat as the best decision they’d made all month long. Hearing Earth Wind & Fire and Chicago live in concert, one more time, was worth every inconvenience of the elements to be surrounded by people of like minds, who simply wanted to hear the best experience in classic rock from their days of firsts.
First high school dance memories jumped out of the sky when Earth Wind & Fire performed “September,” “Fantasy,” “Reasons” and oh just every other chart hit they had. When Chicago’s founding members brought magic to life, one more time in a row, beyond the thousands of nights they’d done the same thing for over 45 years, they made you feel like they were there for the first time, just for you.
Others in the crowd would have affixed the two bands’ biggest hit songs to their first college days. Others might brand it as the music they heard while holding their children in their arms as they danced around the living room. Concert goers spanned three decades of music lovers, ranging in age by at least 40 years and to a person, everyone scattered across the resplendent Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion property was ecstatic that they came. And for a few hours that passed all too quickly, everyone in the crowd was a teenager again, with the rest of their lives ahead of them, hopes and dreams just a wish away.
Founding members of both bands looked “better than ever,” “still young,” and they performed “amazing sets,” “true to the notes on the records” to others, and “I wish ‘so and so’ would have been able to be here to hear all this” as phrases floating among the crowds. Part of the classic rock concert experience includes sharing with the people next to you, “remember when?” and “we heard them before first in” segments, and that was true to almost every person perched on the lawn, whether atop a blanket they’d carried in, or a $6.00 lawn chair they’d rented.
A present-day tradition and more recent highlight of enjoying the live concert experience, is to share the sights, sounds, memories, and comments of the evening with friends and strangers alike through Facebook posts. Cell phones held high in the air snapping pictures or taking brief recordings for memory’s sake of songs that were “the song” or “our song” was a must-do, but the concertgoers were very respectful of most people’s viewing experience so no one overdid it.
If you were there last night, check your Facebook news feed to see how many other friends you have from your same town that you had no idea were going or were there. It’s not just people from Houston who enjoyed the show. People drove almost two hours each way to catch the show of the summer, and were happy to stand at the gates another 30 minutes just to gain entry. For the first time in a long time, every green space on the lawn was filled with a lawn chair or blanket, and everyone was happy about it.
As to the quality of the music, the sounds, and the feel to the grooves you grew up knowing and loving, thank each founding and longtime member of the bands for not once making it look like work up there, that it was just a job, and that last night was not important to them. Looking at the audience through the eyes of Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson, did we look “the same” to them? Likely not.
Did we make their experience as performers as satisfying as the first time they played their Grammy hits for us in concert? We wonder. Does background vocalist Philip Bailey, Jr., know that he is great for his own talent despite his incredible father? We hope so. They found Myron McKinley, David Whitworth, Morris O’Connor and John Paris to be along this journey with them, and they all kept it true to every note of the songs we love.
Verdine “brought it” to the stage with leaps, bounds, moves, and grooves, in full jumpsuit dress, which the Houston folks knew was as hot as firemen’s bunker gear. But he did that for us. Philip Bailey sang every high note right up into the stratosphere because he knew we just had to hear it one more time. We’d heard it three times before when the EWF appeared with Chicago in concert. To a person, Earth Wind & Fire defined professionalism and the love of performing.
Robert Lamm is a solo musician as well as a founding member of Chicago, aka Chicago Transit Authority, aka The Big Thing, same as Walter Parazaider, Lee Loughnane, and James Pankow. Yet, the four founding members, back when they were Bobby, Walt, Lee and Jimmy perhaps, just an ersatz group of DePaul University music students and friends, found a way to attract and retain some of the most marvelous 30+-year and 3+-year band members to bring each song to life that once belonged to other voices and other instruments. Ever evolving, ever refreshing, what’s more remarkable than the Grammys they won, or the rich history of the band, overcoming obstacles and the trials of life on the road, and all that brings with it, is how each band member was “there” for the audience.
It’s not unusual in the days of classic rock tours to see performers on stage who are there because of different motivations–some need the money, so they keep going, and some simply detest singing the same songs night after night. Others dress on stage like they simply don’t care and others add the elements of additional professionalism to their presentation, and care how they look. It’s often easy to forget that the eyes often see first what the ears will hear later.
Think back to the suits, costumes and dress attire these bands wore in the early days. Often matching suits, same haircuts and a blended pattern that it might be hard to tell one from another. In both bands’ cases, you had to learn the members’ names because their faces were rarely featured on the covers. For Chicago, that was purposeful marketing and promotion and the total control of the producer who took them to their first heights. If you didn’t know each band member, he could threaten to remove one and insert another and “they wouldn’t be missed.” It didn’t happen but it was a real and significant threat.
In the case of Earth Wind & Fire, often the band came down to knowing “the voice,” Philip Bailey, or “the bass” of Verdine White. The ears and the eyes search for those two on stage first, and then “all is right with the rest of the band” in the minds and hearts of the discerning music lover and concert goer. The same can be said of Lamm, Parazaider, Loughnane, and Pankow.
If the core four are there, Chicago is in the house. Tribute bands abound and they’re important because they employ talented musicians and bring music that may or may not make it to live performance in a town otherwise, but there’s never a more popular entity than “the real deal,” first, last and always. Along the way, individual band members have broken away after long stints with the group, and done a marvelous job of solo careers and creating new music and that’s just the nature of the business.
The four critical elements of musical life– Earth, Wind, Fire, and Chicago — were all that was needed for concert magic to happen. Everyone was happy to give standing ovations, in the heat, all night long, not just at the end of the concert. Dancing, swaying, singing along, and some patrons getting more than a fair share of some guy’s “oversharing” commentary “Here’s how much I know about the band, every nuance, every year” happened, as one friend noted on Facebook, but as another friend noted that she was “in her happy place” down front, the collective opinion strongly showed every sacrifice made to get the show was all worthwhile.
For over three hours, together at the beginning and together at the end, Earth Wind & Fire and Chicago the band stayed true to our memories, on point with their history, and they kept the music playing for one, more magical night, in The Woodlands, Texas. And all was right with the world again.