When Earth, Wind & Fire were in their funky late-70s pomp, they put on some of the most theatrical pop shows ever seen. Their silver outfits could have come straight from Star Trek and bassist Verdine White’s favourite party piece was levitating several feet above the stage.
Now, after making music for 45 years, they’re down to three remaining original members. Founding singer (and Verdine’s brother) Maurice White exited the touring lineup in the 90s owing to Parkinson’s disease; he died this year. Ralph Johnson has departed the drum kit for a less physically demanding percussion role. However, at 65, singer Philip Bailey’s extraordinary falsetto still visits places usually made possible only by painfully tight trousers. Nowadays, Verdine White remains rooted to the spot, although his red sparkly flares could provide several families with Christmas decorations and his rubbery funk basslines deliver the throbbing power for a near two-hour “parday”.
Opening with signature tune Boogie Wonderland would be foolhardy if the band didn’t have plenty more where that came from, and the 1979 song has been given something of a makeover. With the 13-piece band augmented by younger musicians, including Bailey’s son, a new middle section flits from Latin to Kraftwerk-style electronics to house music, ending with the musicians spinning on their heels into a collective Black Panthers-type salute. In a breathless opening salvo, Jupiter and Shining Star demonstrate the band’s trademark ability to lay down stupidly funky grooves, showered with disco, pop and soul.
It’s a shame, then, that with the entire if undersold arena audience on their feet, a lengthy middle section of purist’s favourites, slower-paced songs and instrumental sections promptly has them sitting down again, although the rest is perhaps welcomed by the more venerable members of the audience.
Still, there’s a lovely moment when Maurice White appears on screen to “sing” with his surviving peers, and in grainy black and white images of the band in their prime. Bailey wonders aloud how many people present were conceived to the sound of EWF’s funky-pumpy. The smoother soul After the Love Has Gone probably soundtracked more divorces than lovey-dovey, although Bailey seems close to tears when the song is taken up by an impromptu, mostly female audience choir.
The brassy cover of the Beatles’ Got to Get You Into My Life gets the party restarted in no uncertain terms, before Fantasy and September sound exactly as they should. With barely anything with a date stamp past 1980 and well-worn, if effective, call-and-response routines, it’s a show that leans mostly on nostalgia and old-fashioned showmanship, but keeps Maurice White’s life’s work alive. If the late frontman is visiting in spirit, he would surely be thrilled to witness the jubilant reception given the 35-year-old Let’s Groove, as every audience member follows Bailey’s tried and trusted command to “wave your hands in the air, wave them like you just don’t care”.
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