Reviews

Earth Wind & Fire

Kandia Crazy Horse
Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire

City: New York
Venue: Beacon Theater
Date: 2003-06-28
S E T    L I S T
In the Stone
Shining Star
Sun Goddess
Sing a Song
Serpentine Fire
After the Love Has Gone
Got to Get You into My Life
Pride
Love's Holiday
Medley:
Boogie Oogie Oogie
Fire
Jungle Boogie
I Want to Take You Higher
Be Ever Wonderful
All in the Way
Beijo
Boogie Wonderland
Reasons
September
Evil
System of Survival
Can't Hide Love
Fantasy
Let's Groove Encore
Devotion
Keep Your Head to the Sky
That's the Way of the World
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Gratitude Redux (Dedicated to Charles Stepney & Skip Scarborough) My tragedy as a music fanatic has always been one of being a spirit out of time. I have spent a goodly portion of my career playing catch up, mourning great music past and musicians whose peaks I was too young to witness or experience properly. Earth Wind & Fire, perhaps the greatest big band of the 1970s, golden era of black music, falls into the latter category. Their time in the spotlight roughly corresponds with my own existence but I never got to see them do their thang in their mid-'70s heyday: the hours of Last Days and Time, the immortal live album Gratitude, and the perennial jam "Shining Star". I asked my mother, who accompanied me to the Beacon, why my parents had never sought to take my sister and I to concerts in our youth considering the degree to which music has always been my central passion and the fact that, by many accounts, those decades (the 1960s and 1970s) saw the richest flowering of black cultural expression. It just did not make sense to me that we'd never seen Earth Wind & Fire live, perhaps at the outdoor Carter-Baron Amphitheater in DC where such shows tended to be mounted, because their back catalogue is likely the only true thing that's ever united my immediate family. In many ways, their music served as a sort of emotional shorthand for us who rarely express anything openly. All of the songs given an airing at the Beacon -- especially "In the Stone", "Reasons", "After the Love Has Gone", "That's the Way of the World", "Fantasy" -- had somehow morphed into my household's lingua franca. The Beacon shindig was hardly a nostalgia act, despite the band's having reached past the 30-year mark and the reality that among 18 people on stage only four remained of the original group: Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph "Slick" Johnson & founder Maurice White (who emerged part-way through the performance). I'd like to see you float that by my young mate in the first tier standing room who was hanging over the balcony with me throughout, giddy and boogying to the tunes with threat of falling over the rail. Here was a guy who'd flown all the way from Melbourne, Australia, just to come to New York to see quality music because so few acts of renown visit Down Under. And it was his particular Grail Quest to see the house that Maurice built in action. Touching that not everyone under 35 has cultural amnesia and that music remains the thing that binds far-flung nations and people together. The justification for all the work the Whites and their brers have ever done was right there made manifest in this young white pilgrim ecstatic as BET comic Michael Hodges made his exit and the immortal horn call of "In the Stone" swelled up. The assembly was mostly bassist Verdine's show and it was amazing just how much energy he possesses after years beneath the lights; he really ought to bottle whatever he's got. With long silky hair and white fringes swinging, he perfectly piloted the uniformed band through hit after hit and snatches of other soul and R&B classics -- the Ohio Players' "Fire", Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie", Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie", Sly's "I Want to Take You Higher" -- such that you were almost overwhelmed at this one act's ability to contribute so many gifts to the culture. This was ole-style showmanship where the whole band can stop on a dime to shift tempos, tunes and grooves without getting off the good foot. Collectively, they displayed the sort of mastery and flexibility that was once de rigueur for any black popular band with ambition and desire for an audience but which has wholly and woefully disappeared in the mushroom cloud of hip-hop. I have often asked my mentor and idol, the Georgian writer Stanley Booth, about the prime of artists he either knew personally or saw perform that I obviously missed. What he had to say about a 1975 concert of EWF's was nothing but praisesongs; he likened their gig to a "high-tech minstrel show". My sister, a black visual culture scholar obsessed with representations of the black body in the Western Hemisphere and well-versed in Lott's Love and Theft, Jan Pieterse and notions about the black dandy and Zip Coon, naturally took offense to such a statement. Yet I am sympathetic to Mr. Booth's description for it effectively summed up what I saw at the Beacon. Their smiles, their high-level of musicianship, their dedication to audience satisfaction and their professionalism were all very much in evidence and sadly these very things which ought to be a given for every band seeking a mass audience made EWF seem like relics. Still, other than the Drive-By Truckers' gigs, I have not been as utterly transported by any performances in many a moon. It is somehow quite telling that a handful of the bands all reaching the three decade mark since the turn-of-the-century -- the Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, CSNY and a few others -- seem to have the highest demand from concertgoers and are capable of putting on marathon shows where everyone (in multiple generations) is engaged and the songs mean more than radio rotation. This EWF appearance was sold out (perhaps the reason why the event was moved from the smaller capacity Apollo in Harlem?) and the standing room attendees upstairs and down were numerous (must be remarked upon since these were largely middle-aged people who typically want to be cosseted with their beers and their velvet-cushioned seats not the grungy kids who show up at this venue every March for the Allmans). Even my mother was oftener than not rockin' out to the continuous stream of songs she used to spin for us on Saturday mornings as we made ready to embark on the day's shopping excursions, the very songs we all used to croon over in the kitchen or in the car although none of us ever had the pipes to match Bailey's immortal "notes" on "Reasons" and "Fantasy". Indeed, the real thrill of this show was the waiting with bated breath to see if the revered falsetto would be able to match his long ago recorded glories on these two songs so indelibly etched upon the black imaginary� that and anticipation of Maurice White's return. On both counts, we were sated. Bailey's voice definitely shows slight wear and tear; he is far from the adolescent phenom who traded vocal riffs with Jessica Cleaves on Head to the Sky. But we were every one of us with him when he reached for the glory during "Fantasy's" coda. And the founder and visionary White emerged from the wings to deafening applause to sing the surprising inclusions "Love's Holiday" (recently replaced on its pedestal by Steve Harvey in The Original Kings of Comedy) and "Be Ever Wonderful" and the band's latest single "All in the Way" from the new release The Promise (Kalimba). On the jam side, all my love went to Verdine's solo bass-slapping outing and to the horn section that was dizzyingly on point throughout, sporting the same wild, edgy function as the Rag Toppers in an OutKast show (EWF really ought to collaborate with the latter, not that they need worry about hip-hop cred. I just see Maurice White and Andre 3000 on the same kozmic page). As if Mr. Maurice's presence was not enough to make the listeners deliriously happy, the catalogue was raided to stretch all the way back to a personal favorite "Evil" plus the monster jam they cut on the elder White's Chi-Town mentor Ramsey Lewis "Sun Goddess" -- alas, no "Ponta de Areia" (Milton Nascimento) or "Let Your Feelings Show", "I'll Write a Song for You", or "Happy Feelin'" nor Sherry Scott-era gems like "Moment of Truth" and "Fan the Fire" and, most criminally, no "Mighty Mighty"!!! Also included was some stray kalimba (that's that eerie thumb-pian! o that's spiced myriad EWF songs, y'all) and conga playing, as well as teases of "System of Survival", "Pride", and, amusingly, Bernie Worrell's keys soloing from "Atmosphere" considering the fact that Funkadelic famously dissed them as "Earth, hot air and no fire" on Let's Take It to the Stage. It takes Big Willie cajones to give propers to your rivals and embellish on your two-way musical dialogue no matter how far back in the mists of time the gauntlet was thrown. The air of accounting for all of the band's storied history extended to their prominent guests, including legendary songwriting team Ashford & Simpson who gamely posed for photographs with star-struck, gushing fans, and their erstwhile boss on Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song Melvin Van Peebles who was as aloof and self-possessed as ever in a white suit, chomping on a cigar. Getting other icons to leave the comfort of their well-appointed drawing rooms to celebrate your career: now that's power. Of course the magical and most marvelous thing about Earth, Wind & Fire other than and a hundred other much-beloved compositions is that their real power comes from their humanity, from their avowed mission to "spread love!" Now that their dear collaborator Skip Scarborough, author of "Can't Hide Love" and "Love's Holiday" as well as hits for Bill Withers ("Lovely Day"), Anita Baker and Mother's Finest, has departed on high (July 3rd), it is even more imperative that we pay tribute to the majesty of this last of the great big bands. So long as they soldier on, something Bailey admitted they are not always so eager to do, I should be able to keep my head to the sky. Guess I'll try to keep in the Game until somebody renders me in paint like that iconic Kemetic album art which graces I Am. My hero Maurice White once sang about folks "talking loud and sayin' nothing." Well, I'm sho'nuff glad the brothers have been around all my life to provide sonic tools to enable me to communicate and connect. By their grace, we all still live the Eternal Dance.

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