Earth, Wind & Fire ignited their collective soul fire at the end of the 1960s, warming the world with a groundbreaking blend of R&B, jazz, and rock.
We were too young to enjoy early efforts like The Need of Love and Last Days and Time (we weren’t even alive yet), but—like many—we absorbed their supercharged songs as a kid when our parents spun EWF’s first horn-laden hits LP (1978).
It was like Chicago meets The Commodores, otherworldly and awesome.
The Powerlight pioneers have been burning for nearly half a century now—and the flames have yet to flicker out.
The forefathers of funk returned to Ohio Tuesday night for a gig at the Hard Rock “Rocksino” at Northfield Park. And they played to an exuberant, near-capacity crowd despite competing with a decisive Cavs Eastern Conference Finals basketball game on TV.
Still fronted by longstanding lead vocalist Philip Bailey, thumb-tastic bassist Verdine White, and singer / percussionist Ralph Johnson, the ensemble transformed the Northfield venue into a “Boogie Wonderland” in short order.
What followed was essentially an EWF hit parade, with a still-kinetic Verdine slapping and popping his strings to John Paris’s strident snare and resonant kick drum. “Sing a Song” stretched all the way back to 1975. “Shining Star” hasn’t lost any edge since its original release forty years ago on That’s The Way of The World. “Serpentine Fire” is still slinky. “Yearnin’, Learnin’” was churnin’ and burnin’.
Verdine’s older brother, Maurice, founded the band with the bassist, naming it for his elemental astrological sign, Sagittarius. Maurice led the group onstage until health issues forced him into semi-retirement (he remains as active as ever behind-the-scenes as spiritual leader), but Verdine’s still funkin’—as are Bailey and Johnson, who both climbed aboard in ’72.
Under the elder White’s watch, EWF rose to prominence slowly in the early ‘70s, gaining traction halfway through the disco decade with their ebullient harmonies, catchy hooks, and irresistible grooves. The cool costumes and neo-Egyptian / African record sleeve graphics helped, too: These cats had a look. And while the hits dried up by the ‘90s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers (inducted 2000) kept releasing new material (and the occasional anthology)—to the tune of 90 million albums sold twenty Grammy nominations (with six wins). Vigorous stage shows (like last night’s) ensure their status as perennial concert favorites.
They sold out Cain Park in Cleveland Heights so quickly last year that we couldn’t even get in to cover the show. So it was nice to finally check EWF off our bucket list with this post-Memorial Day performance.
Accompanying Verdine, Johnson, Bailey, and Paris were guitarists Serg Dimitrijevic and Morris O’Connor, keyboardist Myron McKinley, percussionist B. David Whitworth, saxophonist Gary Bias, trombone player Reggie Young, trumpeter Bobby Burns, Jr., and (keeping it in the family) Phil Bailey, Jr. We counted a dozen dudes on stage, and yet none of them seemed expendable, each man adding his own indispensable instrumental flourish or vocal flair. The band’s sharp attire helped onlookers distinguish the members: Johnson sported black pants and a red vest with Japanese markings; White wore pants and a white ruffled shirt; Whitworth donned a dapper vest, and Bailey rocked green pleather pants and sport coat in a way few others can.
Though the stage was crowded with players and percussion equipment, the guys found floor space for their synchronized dance moves on “Saturday Nite” and “On Your Face.” The horn section occupied the “valley” between Paris’ and McKinley’s perches, and though the guitarists spent a lot of time in the shadows on the sides, both Morris and “Serg D” enjoyed solo spots down front.
Bailey played African thumb-piano on the aptly-titled “Kalimba Story,” the delicate notes pinging like a Kyoto. He dueled with Johnson’s snappy drum-hits on a set of Remo congas at stage left, near O’Connor, segueing slinky “Evil” into the sultry “Head to the Sky.”
Bailey dedicated “Devotion” to our nation’s armed forces and their loved ones: “This one’s for God and country, friends and family! C’mon!” Images of stained glass church windows dominated the video backdrop and side-screens, underscoring the song’s hymn-like quality.
Bailey was even looser in other spots: The Chinese Wall wizard chanted “Go Cavs! Go Cavs!” while thwacking away on one of the three satellite drum kits, and breezy ballad “After the Love Has Gone” leaned on his sweet falsetto (and the brass section’s airy asides).
And just when you thought Bailey couldn’t sing any higher, the “Easy Lover” star did, nailing impossibly high notes in the outro for “Reasons.” It was a vocal demonstration that dropped jaws, raised neck hairs—and nearly shattered glass.
Bailey quoted Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now” on his descent from the upper register—an apropos musical allusion, what with war still raging overseas and racial tensions running high on the home front.
Likewise, “That’s the Way of the World” and “You Can’t Hide Love” drew upon EWF’s social awareness and romantic proclivity.
“We like playing some of the songs that weren’t on the charts,” said Bailey.
“Because we know they were Top Tens in your hearts.”
Johnson, Whitmore, and Bailey, Jr. sang their share, too, giving Phil some well-deserved respite. As a whole, however, EWF never really came up for air. LCD lights flickered on Paris’ drum riser and McKinley’s keyboard platform, teasing vintage band photos and artwork from album jackets as the indefatigable White sauntered, plucking and slapping the strings of his Sadowsky bass. Maurice popped up onscreen a few times, too, jiving in his cosmic ‘70s costumes on old T.V. excerpts.
The show slipped into high gear with “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
Still the best things to come out of Robert Stigwood’s otherwise ill-fated 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles cover was as boisterous and bouncy as ever—and showcased EWF’s penchant for unorthodox arrangements. Bailey and Johnson high-fived and fist-bumped a few lucky fans down front while singing, as if to act out the tune’s barrier-breakin’ theme.
Feisty “Fantasy” prepped spectators for sinewy “September,” recharging everyone’s dance batteries. Sung primarily by Whitworth and the younger Bailey, the verses resonated anew, its gibberish bah-dee-yah refrain still tickling the ears.
We’re guessing McKinley triggered the electro-voice invitation of “Let’s Groove,” whose pulsating meters had the majority of ticket-holders on their feet. “In the Stone” kept ‘em shuffling out the doors for home—just in time for a Cavs’ victory celebration.
EWF will rejoin compatriots Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Lee Loughnane, and the rest of Chicago later this summer for the Hearts and Souls tour.
Meanwhile, Bailey just published his memoirs: Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind and Fire (Viking).