Review: Earth Wind & Fire
REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / firstname.lastname@example.org
“A lot of y’all were conceived to Earth Wind & Fire (songs),” Philip Bailey, the group’s famed lead vocalist, told the sold-out crowd last night at Blaisdell Arena. “That makes us your musical godfathers.”
Yes, indeed. Of course you’re right! Count forward nine months and a day or two, and Bailey and the other “main elements” of EWF — Verdine White and Ralph Johnson — will likely have a few more “musical godchildren” to take credit for.
No song in the group’s extensive list of hits is more conducive to romance than “Reasons,” for almost 40 years a perfect showcase for the upper reaches of Bailey’s four-octave vocal range. Bailey hit all the high notes with power and clarity last night. He delivered all the requisite emotional intensity as well.
Bailey, White and Johnson led the group through a powerful and well-crafted show that included almost all the songs serious, long-time fans could ask for. They also included a surprising number of songs from their earlier years — a couple that didn’t even break the Top 40 as well as others that barely did.
Bailey was the point man in making “Keep Your Head To The Sky” the spiritual highlight of the evening (If you don’t remember the song it’s probably because it peaked on #52 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1973).
There were a couple of songs from the boom years that they did not do last night. However, since this is the “Now, Then & Forever Tour,” it makes sense to include more of the earlier, pre-boom material — even though it means not doing a couple of hits.
Bailey earned multiple, well-deserved standing ovations for his strong falsetto singing in “After The Love Is Gone” and “Reasons.”
White was the charismatic dynamo as always. He was in motion for most of the show, all over the stage, smiling radiantly for much of the evening. White threw out some great work with the other members of the rhythm section early on, and closed the main set by stripping off his ruffled white shirt, turning his back to the back to the audience and shaking his butt. The crowd loved it.
Johnson’s laid-back charisma made him a stand-out as well. He sang and danced with White and Bailey on some numbers, and played timbales stage right/audience left on others. Johnson’s percussion duet — or duel, your call — with Bailey, who was playing congas to stage left/audience right, was entertaining rather than “filler.”
Indeed, whatever Johnson happened to be doing from one moment to the next, he too was an entertainer worth watching.
The concert sound mix was perfect. The voices, the instruments, everything was clear. All the instruments were balanced. But I’ll say for the record that the set was mostly what they did in 2011 — not that Hawaii fans were going to complain about hearing the songs they want to hear.
The opening hit, as in 2001, was “Boogie Wonderland,” sung with various group members filling in seamlessly for the Emotions (the “girl group” that partnered with EWF on the original 1979 hit version). Next came three more hits — “Sing A Song,” “Shining Star” and “Serpentine Fire” — and “My Promise,” the first single off the “Now, Then & Forever” album that will released next month.
Judging from the response last night, “My Promise” is one of several songs on the new album destined to become part of the canon in the years to come.
“Sing A Song” was greeted with cheers. Several of the big hits became spontaneous audience sing-alongs.
The “main elements” were supported by the solid group of musicians, whose work Hawaii has enjoyed previously. Bailey’s son, Philip Doron Bailey (sometimes referred to as Philip Bailey Jr.) and singer/percussionist B. David Whitworth, both sporting braids longer than Bailey’s own, were a dynamic duo. Sometimes they performed up front with the main elements, on other songs they played percussion on opposite sides of the stage. On “September” they were up front as primary singers.
Whitworth displayed his athleticism when he kicked high to strike a cymbal with his foot. He showed off his showman’s technique tossing a tambourine up high and catching it as if by afterthought.
And there were other highlight moments: Morris O’Connor nailing the guitar solo on “That’s The Way Of the World.” Gary Bias’ beautiful sax solo on ‘Sun Goddess.” Bailey honoring tradition, and EWF founder/leader Maurice White, with a lengthy piece on kalimba, the African “thumb piano” that was an important part of the group’s music in the early days.
There were some nice personal touches, too. Bailey and Johnson making the effort to touch hands with as many fans as time allowed during the show. Both men acknowledging the presence of the fans in the upper levels. Johnson carefully tossing his drum sticks to the crowd when the show was over.
And, when someone tossed a lei in Bailey’s direction while he was singing, Johnson made sure that he saw it. When he did, he picked it up and hung it on his mike stand. It was a small gesture, but an important one here in Hawaii.
The show peaked in terms of romantic content with Bailey’s back-to-back renditions of “After The Love Is Gone” and “Reasons.” From that point on the pace picked up with some of the big up-tempo hits — “Got To Get You Into My Life,” “Fantasy,” “September,” “Let’s Groove” and “Mighty Mighty.”
The main elements closed the main set with a riff on Sly Stone — “Thank you for letting us be ourselves again.”
As in 2011, the encore was a rousing rendition of “In The Stone.” An hour-and-40-minutes never seemed to fly so quickly.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve said this about any concert by any artist, but if I could drive to Maui, I’d be catching EWF at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center tonight.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at email@example.com.