The legendary super-group Earth, Wind & Fire returned this month for a brief UK tour, stopping at Manchester’s O2 Apollo.
How many calories do you burn as a member of Earth, Wind & Fire? I ask not only as someone who needs to lose weight, but as someone completely mesmerised by the effort and energy that the members of this iconic band continue to put in every time they take the stage.
Formed nearly 45 years ago by Maurice White, Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) are one of the greatest bands around. They’ve sold nearly 100 million records worldwide, and their songs are some of the most instantly recognisable ever recorded. In performance, the group pioneered the use of lasers and pyrotechnics, and combined them with elaborate stage set ups. White, a visionary figure in the music industry, combined elements of rock, soul, funk, jazz, Latin and African music to provide EWF with an innovative and unique sound.
EWF was Maurice White’s creation. The music, the performances and the album art all reflected White’s interest in astrology, African culture, and Egyptology. This gave the group a unique sound and a unique image, pitting the group against the intergalactic mystic of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic outfits. Yet, unlike Clinton, White ensured that while the band remained true to their artistic roots, their albums and singles were made more to be more accessible to the public, rather than the often weird, yet wonderful, P-Funk music.
Simply put, EWF were one of the greatest bands of the seventies and eighties.
Today, only members Philip Bailey, Verdine White (Maurice’s brother) and Ralph Johnson remain with the group. Maurice was forced to stop touring with the group in 1994; he had developed Parkinson’s disease in the eighties, and touring was becoming more and more difficult. He died in February 2016, but his influence and vision remains at the heart of what EWF continue to do.
The remaining trio are today supported by nine hugely talented musicians and performers, many of whom have been performing with EWF for years. This impressive supporting cast have mastered the EWF catalogue, and recreate the sounds of the original tracks superbly.
Their performance in Manchester formed a mini-tour of the UK, which saw the group headline the Love Supreme Festival, as well as playing arena dates in both Bournemouth and Leeds.
After a brief but impressive solo set from the supporting act Rob Green, EWF’s supporting musicians took to the stage and immediately struck a tight groove. This allowed fans at the bar to rush back to their seats, spilling their beer in doing so, before the remaining trio of Bailey, White and Johnson were introduced to the crowd. Decked in matching blue, sparkly uniforms, the band looked pretty suave for a Thursday night in Manchester.
The group opened the set with a blistering rendition of ‘Sing A Song’, with Bailey trading the lead with singer and percussionist David Whitworth. The crowd suitably teased, EWF then launched into a funk-drenched version of ‘Shining Star’. And from then on, the hits just kept coming: ‘Shining Star’ led into the funk-disco fusion of ‘Getaway’ and ‘Jupiter’, which in turn led into ‘Serpentine Fire’.
Here the group briefly paused, as Bailey spoke with the crowd, telling us that “true Earth, Wind & Fire fans don’t mind when we play songs that weren’t hits”. But when the non-hits are such epic tracks as ‘Evil’ and ‘Kalimba Story’, most EWF fans are more than happy to hear them. On the latter track there was even an opportunity for Bailey to his Kalimba out, an African-thumb piano prevalent on much of EWF’s early work. Bailey may be a phenomenal singer (more on that later), but he’s also a dab-hand at percussion and the Kalimba, demonstrating his skills with a cracking solo. The rest of the band then jumped in, and ran through an incredibly funky version of ‘Kalimba Story’, propelled by the bass of White.
Verdine White is arguably the most underrated bassist in the business. His playing is perhaps overlooked because his energetic performances on stage tends to distract from the funky sounds emanating from his bass guitar. But, if watched closely, he spent much of the night holding down a steady groove, frequently adding in subtle improvisations. His early solo was equally impressive, in somehow dancing around like a man possessed while still playing his bright white bass guitar.
Meanwhile, Ralph Johnson, the final remaining member of the group, spent much of the evening behind his elaborate percussion set up. A former drummer with the group, he’s spent much of his EWF days playing percussion and singing backing vocals, as well as contributing energetic moves to the show. He was given a brief lead vocal during the early part of the set, but most of the leads were split between Bailey and David Whitworth, an impressive vocalist/percussionist/dancer who has performed with EWF for over two decades, and whose energy is infectious. Bailey’s son Philip Jr also contributed to the lead vocals.
Back to the set, and ‘Kalimba Story’ led into a brilliant rendition of ‘Got to Get You into My Life’. This Beatles cover energised the crowd, and Bailey delivered a fine lead vocal. After some furious playing, the group wisely gave themselves (and the ageing crowd) a rest, sliding into the slow-jam ‘Devotion’ which presented Bailey with yet another opportunity to showcase his undiminished vocal power.
The slow-grooves continued with ‘That’s The Way of the World’, perhaps the defining EWF anthem, before the band was introduced. A snippet of ‘Brazilian Rhyme’ and one standing ovation later, some assistants brought 4 Westlife-esque bar stools onto the stage for White, Johnson, Whitworth and Bailey Jr. Bailey Sr then stepped out front to lead the crowd in a sing-a-long to the group’s biggest ballad, ‘After The Love Has Gone’. At times Bailey was drowned out by chatting and those participating in the sing-a-long, but the group’s saxophonist, long-time EWF member Gary Bias, was heard perfectly when he stepped out to solo at the song’s close.
Then came the Philip Bailey masterclass in falsetto. Reaching high notes that I’m pretty sure only dogs in the local area could hear hear, Bailey delivered a stunning performance of ‘Reasons’, one of the highlights of the show. How Bailey can continue to reach those high notes is truly one of the wonders of the modern world.
With the end in sight, EWF launched into five of their biggest hits to close the show: ‘Boogie Wonderland‘, ‘Fantasy‘, ‘September‘, ‘Let’s Groove‘, and an encore of ‘In The Stone‘. It was an incredible twenty minutes or so, each song a highlight on their own. The disco-funk of ‘Boogie Wonderland’ was infectious (as was the percussion drop midway through), while ‘September’ had everyone on their feet, swaying side to side. These may be amongst the most played EWF songs, but in the hands of this band they remain fresh and exhilarating.
For me, the highlight of any EWF set is to hear Philip Bailey sing ‘Fantasy’. I first saw Bailey and EWF perform the song in London back in 2010, and I’ve seen EWF twice since, but it’s always a thrill to hear one of the best EWF songs performed so brilliantly. Bailey may be nearly ten years older than when I first saw him, but he’s still able to deliver the goods, while the rest of the band, anchored by White’s bass, lay down a tight groove.
Then, with another epic performance of ‘Let’s Groove’, the band briefly left the stage only to return to thunderous applause, launching into the encore of ‘In The Stone’. The horn section, who had been sublime all night, had their moment out front, before the rest of the band jumped in to end what had been another wonderful evening with the legendary group.
Understandably, the set is nostalgic. None of the songs in the set were recorded this millennium; the newest song the group performed was ‘Let’s Groove’, which was released in the early eighties. Yet the group have the ability to make their classics sound fresh, and they avoid the trap other older artists fall into of relying purely on nostalgia and audience goodwill to see them through the show.
The performance itself is more slim-lined than those during the group’s hey-day. Gone are the days of elaborate stage set ups and fancy illusions. In days gone by, Verdine White would “levitate” on stage while simultaneously playing an intense bass solo. These days, with perhaps a slightly more limited budget, EWF prove that you can still put on a highly slick and professional performance that not only grooves, but entertains as well. Watching EWF you notice that every dance move, musical lick and vocal flourish is highly choreographed. The whole show moves quickly, and the band breeze through a hit packed 90 minute performance with amazing ease.
While the remaining trio of White, Bailey and Johnson are the star attractions, their phenomenal backing band deserve much of the credit for making EWF sound so good. Most of the group have been performing with the remaining trio for several years, some for a few decades, and it’s clear that they have embraced the opportunity to perform as part of one of the world’s best groups.
We should be grateful that White, Bailey and Johnson show no signs of slowing down. All three are well into their sixties, but they appear to have retained the same energy they showed decades ago. It’s clear they still enjoy performing these songs, and there’s no sense that were simply going through the motions.
Taken as whole, few bands will ever match the legacy of EWF. Presumably the reason they continue to tour is their genuine love of the music and performing; after all, you’d hope by now they don’t need the cash. To see such incredible musicians, and their talented backing band, in a delightful venue, is definitely one of my highlights of the year.
Long may White, Bailey and Johnson continue, and long live the Boogie Wonderland.