Earth, Wind and Fire – Live at the Arie Crown
Live at the Arie Crown September 20th, 2001
Earth, Wind and Fire
by Phyllis Lodge
“We just wanna give gratitude…” in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Earth, Wind and Fire who still remain a major staple in the musical diet of millions across the globe. Their onstage delivery is a cornucopia of high-minded celestial delight, balanced with a healthy foundation of pure funk in all it’s intensity.
“It’s going to be a ‘Cool Blue September for Earth, Wind and Fire”, we were promised, and EWF made good on the promise. As fate would have it, the musicians had traveled from New York, although no one spoke of a performance there. The audience was invited to come together in a moment of silence in memory of the episode of September 11, 2001. This atmosphere was established early in the evening, and was pervasive throughout the night.
The stage transitions before our eyes, the drone of celestial chords accompanies a vocal tune in an archaic-sounding language murmured in a barely noticeable hush. It unfolds softly into a second tune, also with an otherworldly, embracing feeling as it becomes progressively more audible, claiming more of our awareness. It was a mesmerizing chant encircled by the songs of birds, gradually expanding in a voice reminiscent of the exotic sounds of an eastern flute. It floats gracefully into a third tune that is hymnal in mood that drifts through the air like feathery wisps of clouds on a clear, shimmering day just for a few moments before the room becomes totally swaddled in darkness….
In a flash, we are bathed in floods of kinetic, blue-white, near-blinding light. I blink in order to confirm in my mind that the hazy phantoms materializing near the back of the stage are really there. As the outlines sharpen, a blaring electronic voice announces: “… Presenting the mightiest elements of the universe — Earth, Wind and Fire.”
Earth, Wind and Fire pounces into a big-bang rendition of Gotta Let Your Feelings Show in all its splendor of light and sound, swirling the audience into the show from the outset. They feel like a spring morning and sound twice as invigorating. You awaken, you rise and you rejoice. The live, visual experience of Earth, Wind and Fire is truly a witness to what was once called “Ra” or pure “heavenly” energy. There are two somewhat irregular highlights about this evening’s performance that deserve mention. First thing (and I learned this a few days afterwards) is that the group staged the entire performance devoid of the electronic fireworks and special stage effects that ordinarily grace their concerts. They would have been included tonight as well, except the stuff just didn’t arrive in time. So-o-o… they just went on without them and delivered an entire evening of pure EWF. The musicians brought their own electro-magnetic “Selves” onstage, working it throughout the night, number after number. A final twist. Creator and founder, Maurice White, has foregone the touring and performance circuit in deference to the production studio and the future of younger, upcoming artists.
Maurice, whose artistic genius as the Sun of Earth, Wind and Fire since it’s inception 30 years ago, continues to reach out, teach and bring others along. You could still feel and hear him through the highly remarkable performances of his associates. When it was announced that Maurice was lending his support from California, it was filled with respect and “gratitude” for the man who brought Earth, Wind and Fire into existence. This was truly a night of splendor as well as spirit in action. Immediately after Gotta Let Your Feelings Show, the musicians dove headlong into a jump-up-and-down rendition of Let’s Groove Tonight, bringing the audience to it’s knees with the frantic guitar solos. For the first of numerous times that evening, the spirit of music and musicians days past were evoked, in this case calling up Hendrix’s unprecedented Woodstock coup of the ‘Star Spangled Banner”.
Then they grooved into Boogie Wonderland, setting off another round of dancing. True to form EWF shifted the movement from their traditional treatment to a brisk, frenetic salsa, dazzled by the footwork of two of the vocalists who tore into some indescribable crackling motions that blew the set to bits. They were literally dancing flames, each moving in flickering and circular motions that had me frozen until they flickered offstage.
After a short break they continued with a pensive serenade by Philip Bailey, smoothing the way for After the Love one most moving ballads of our generation. How many times have we grooved to that sax solo? It’s a major feat for someone to come along and perform it again and make it brand new (like saxophonist Gary Bias did). The amazing, ever-present perpetual motion of Verdine White was like a comet’s flashes. I would venture to say that then entire generation of our young hip-hop performers draw their inspiration from Verdine. If they don’t, it’s probably because they haven’t seen him in action, radiating rather than imposing, so he doesn’t need to arrest your attention.
When EWF launches into True Devotion, the audience blossoms into an expanse of gracefully waving hands. “Clap your hands this evening… Say it’s alright!” Niagara Falls would be swallowed in the roar of hands clapping in unison. The musicians begin filing offstage moving out into the audience, traveling like a bubbling mountain stream, and circulating their energy throughout the crowd then fairly floating to the front of the auditorium, stopping at the low wall of the orchestra pit. Here they all perch on the wall facing us and Philip Bailey reminds us:
We really want to thank God – we Give Him the honor and the Praise!…
We want to thank Him for giving us 30 years to do what we want to do.
The audience cheers in agreement. Continuing, Philip reminds us, how so often when we are reaching down, or within ourselves for something to hold onto, and sensing a void – we need to remember reach up and turn all of our heads to the sky. They then raised the roof with a medley of songs from the 1970’s. The musicians onstage are pulling one magical tune after the other out of the hat including: Brickhouse; Another One Bites the Dust; Wrapper’s Delight; [For the Love of] Money; You’ve Got the Best of My Love… and on. After a while it was difficult to even keep up with the steady stream of music that was rushing forth, but the excitement never stopped.
Verdine cuts across the room with the dazzle of a comet and the spirit of an eagle in top flight. Again he’s front stage, egging the music on in his staccato, double-time hopping. At some points in the performance he zips to the rear of the stage, charging the risers like the gladiators in revolt in one of those ancient movie battle scenes. Then the figure in white turns around and faces the audience, still perched at the top of the risers at the back of the stage and hops a few more seconds before charging back down front stage right, beep-beep roadrunner-style. He skates first this way, then that, never abandoning his hopping dance, constantly singing his own tune along with the musicians onstage. Then Can’t Hide Love materializes gently from underneath the throng. Again the audience adds more fuel to the sound, waving, singing many on their feet and some just caught up in a state of joy. Bailey let’s the audience groove with him real easy and slow through two heavenly stanzas of Can’t Hide Love before they float and roll gently into a smooth abbreviated yet effective rendition of Love’s Holiday.
Then the solos of Stacey Harper and Elizabeth Ramos, who razzle-dazzled the Boogie Wonderland into oblivion makes the stage talk again, performing sizzling moves that walk an emotional precipice. They can lay claim to the visual reproduction of all the elements in motion.
I must also speak about the stinging-ringing sharp tones of Danny Reyes’ talking conga that follows. It is total solo power, multi-directional and spirit inducing. Then John Paris can’t picks up the challenge on the drum-set, ripping into some penetrating vibrations and rhythms. Phillip Bailey emerges pushing a set of trap drums and proceeds to push the rhythmic paradise to another level, the entire stage becoming a crackling bed of electricity.
EWF rebounds with the classig Reasons. Phillip Bailey is in rare form, cloaked in a long sparkling shirt the color of a dawn-breaking sky. As he calls up the dawn, we gaze with our hearts into the beautiful images that this marvelous icon of our musical culture generously hands us. Now they burst forth with September . Can we ever forget the chirping horn lines, singing, dancing swinging their staccato chattering over the undercurrent of the deep, buzzing bass, rich and fragrant like very beginning of that stick of incense rising through the trees. Always clear, clean and alive, EWF is a sound that is never duplicable, yet forever recognizable.
Freeze. About face. Myron McKinnley breaks into a rousing, spiritually inspired keyboard solo, reaching deep into the collective heart of the audience. That piano man ran that number up and down the keyboard in such a ma’goodness-gracious fashion, he started to sound like a madman chasing himself… except that like the great Hamlet, there was method in his madness! He played spirituals, blues, chamber music, counter-point, Bach-type and then – dead silence.
The silence collapsed before a brilliant upward spiral of an introduction into Fantasy. Whoa, lookout, here come them dancers again, streaking across the stage, exploding into an open, disjointing movement that evokes the spirit of the Phoenix. The vision flutters away as the music winds down into an extended close in a spirit of outreach toward harmony. It is a fanfare that, I feel, reached into the hearts of people who weren’t even in the auditorium.
More? Yes! A figure in wild, 70’s type outfit and humongus sunglasses announces that it is “Time for the Super-sonic Seventies Music” (I think that’s how he put it). I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, but when they got the ‘pots to bubbling’, I was definitely down for it. The musicians started pulling some tunes out of the air that sparked every nerve ending in the place. It was amazing. You know all they had to do was play the first couple bars of each number and the audience would freak completely. Then they’d move right into another, and we just freaked again, and again. “Flashlight” (you could almost hear Bootsie chanting in the background); some Ohio Players Stevie Wonder and more and more. They threw us headlong into a time machine and starting spinning us so fast we were practically out of our heads. It just all went too fast, but the audience was taking it all in like a sponge, and we all screamed in unison with the opening bars of each familiar tune from our collective history. It bordered on a divine ritual. The air at Arie Crown was screaming long after we took our noisy selves home that night.
Then the ‘magicians’ onstage zeroed in on “Shining Star, which spun the entire audience into a swirling; slow-funk dance in unison. At this point, they smacked us down with the horn lines from Sly and the Family Stone’s Sing a Simple Song. The minute we tried to get up, they smacked us down again with some James Brown/Maceo Parker horn-type gumbo. A whole bunch of us were doing our Verdine White imitation, hopping around uncontrollably before the medley slowed down to a halt with the same groan as a powerful diesel locomotive, down to the last hiss of steam and screeching. Then a voice announces all the musicians, one-by-one before the musicians fairly reel offstage and it goes darkness and we hear the same chant being played that we heard at the beginning of the performance. A lone voice weakly blurts out: Encore. As I instinctively blurt out-loud, “Are you kidding? Asking for any more than they’ve already given is nothing but pure greed!” Then I thought about it – it was the highest compliment. No matter how long and hard they played, there’s always room in our hearts for more.
The entire audience began filing out quietly, serenely like guests leaving a perfectly prepared feast — exhilarated, yet satisfied. When you travel beyond the Milky Way and back, what more is there to ask for? As I move up the aisle and toward the exit with the flow of others leaving, there is a peaceful migration of bodies in a divinely orderly flow of traffic. I notice a child deeply asleep, sprawled comfortably on an angle in his chair. I search for someone who also caught this to comment about it. I finally catch the attention of a woman walking just behind me. I indicate the sleeping youngster: “That proves there is a difference between noise and pure power.” She seconded my sentiments. The interesting thing is there were several comments on the less than favorable acoustics in the room. Even with all that, the great musicianship of the one and only Earth, Wind and Fire is a testimonial of the truism, to paraphrase the great Maya Angelou – “And still they rise.”
[EWF Touring Unit: Philip Bailey, vocals/percussion; Verdine White; bass; Ralph Johnson; vocals/percussion; Sheldon Reynolds; guitars/vocals; Bobby Gonzales, guitar; Robert Brookins, musical director/vocals/keyboards; Myron McKinnley, keyboards; B. David Whitworth, vocals/percussion; John Paris, drums; Danny Reyes, percussion; Ray Brown, trumpet; Reggie Young, trombone; Gary Bias, saxophone; Toyona Holloway, background vocals; Stacey Harper, dancer; Elizabeth Ramos, dancer.]