Changes in consumer tastes and technology? No worries, they’ll just go with the flow.
Member Attrition? Not an issue. They’ll just do more with less, besides it’s good for economics.
Death of a founder? Huge loss, but they’ve been preparing for that for decades.
Age? Well, that ain’t nothing but a number.
Those must be the driving forces for the three remaining principal members of Earth Wind & Fire – Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson – all of whom are now 66 years young and only a year-and-a-half removed from the death of legendary EWF founder Maurice White.
These three have carried the EWF torch for the better part of two-and-a-half decades, or since Maurice White stopped touring with them in the early 1990s due to illness.
Yet if you’re asking yourself whether the veteran R&B act can still headline a dazzling concert some 40 years after their late-70s commercial peak, Philip, Verdine and Ralph – along with a cast of newer musicians that include Bailey’s son – provided the answer in spades last week during the Chicago stop on their “2054: The Tour” trek across America.
And if you’re also asking whether Bailey, the high-pitched falsetto voice of these legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, can still hit those famous high notes, ask no more.
The answer is a glass-shattering yes.
And he still makes it look easy (although I would never recommend you trying it home – it can’t be good for the average person’s vocal chords).
But Philip Bailey and his otherworldly falsetto have never been average anything. And, together with his longtime band mates plus a new blend of capable next-generation vocalists and musicians, Bailey and Co. descended on Chicago’s United Center on July 26th and wowed an audience of several thousand very pleased fans.
The disco group CHIC featuring Nile Rodgers served as their opening act (see my Chic review here).
I’m blessed to have seen EWF – who alternate with Chic as my all time favorite band – five times, including twice in the past week: once here in the Windy City and then four days later at “The Classic East” rock festival in New York along with five other bands (see review of that show here).
This article focuses on “2054: The Tour” because, well, it was theirs and it certainly warrants its own ink. Sure, the Classic East performance in NYC would have sufficed in a pinch for some EWF fans; it certainly satisfied the tens of thousands who were in attendance. But let’s face it, that demographic was primarily at New York’s Citi Field to see pop/rock groups like Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers and Journey.
This one was for the true EWF fans. After all, there was an added incentive for the band to do well… Chicago was their home base; it all started here for them nearly 50 years ago.
And put simply, EWF delivered!
They’ve obviously still got it – and they showed few signs of slowing down despite having weathered five decades of changes in musical tastes, changes in technology and changes in membership.
The core of this group – Bailey, Johnson and V. White – likely understands that their window of performing signature hits like “Reasons,” “Serpentine Fire” and “That’s The Way of the World” is slowly closing. This is not only due to their immortality, but there will likely come a time when fans are simply too young to remember – or care – about who EWF really is (or was).
But that time is not now, and EWF celebrated their continued concert relevance with a 90-minute show that included 20 tracks, many of which were chart-toppers back in the day.
All the expected hits were there, including the ones already mentioned plus million-selling tunes like “Sing a Song,” “Shining Star,” “Getaway,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “Let’s Groove” “After The Love Has Gone” and, of course, “September.”
But EWF went even deeper into its catalog, performing rarely heard songs like “Devotion,” “Can’t Hide Love” (yes, complete with that ascending four-note horn blast intro) and “On Your Face.” The group even performed one of its famous album interludes – the classic “Beijo (Interlude) aka Brazilian Rhyme (Interlude)” from the 1977 All ‘N All album (you know: “badapbababababa, badapbababow, badeeyah, badeeyah, badeeyahdeeyahdeeyah, badapbababow”).
Words can never do that justice, but true EWF fans know of what I speak.
The legends also did a medley of “Kalimba Story” and “Sing A Message To You.” On the first tune, Bailey – mostly known for his singing – made it clear that he had learned a thing or two from Maurice White about EWF’s signature instrumentation; namely, how to play the African thumb piano for which the song was named. White first introduced fans to the kalimba on mid-1970s albums like Head to the Sky, Open Our Eyes and Spirit. Bailey’s tribute to White as a lead-in to “Kalimba Story” would have done the late founder proud.
As would the dazzling special effects the band used for its video backdrops. Old EWF footage was interspersed with the band’s signature album-cover art that appeared to come to life on the huge stage screen. The pyramid, long an EWF staple, was also prominent throughout, as were many other shapes and captivating moving images.
The EWF horns were also on point, doing justice to nearly every song they punctuated.
White’s younger brother and fellow group founder Verdine, the ever energetic long-haired bass player, was his usual self, wildly dancing and prancing across the stage with his bass guitar and boundless energy intact.
Fellow founder, percussionist Ralph Johnson, the seeming opposite of V. White, was the calm of the group, occasionally standing in place while raising his hands in a slow, meditative style – as if he was taking in all the energy the crowd was giving him and his band mates.
But it was Bailey’s singing that is still the band’s main draw, and he used it accordingly here. He had the double-duty of handling both his falsetto and White’s more baritone parts, while occasionally handing off vocals to some of the band’s newer members, who are likely being groomed to continue EWF’s legacy should Bailey ever decide to hang up his hat.
The combination of all the above made for a great show for us diehard fans. The only bonus would have been to hear Bailey sing what I consider his best vocal recording, “I Write A Song For You” from (again) the All ‘N All album. But that album was well represented by one of his signature hits, “Fantasy,” one of two songs the band added in its encore.
And the high notes he hit at the end of that classic? Yep they were still there.
All ‘n all (pun intended), when it comes to EWF, who said growing older had to be a bad thing?
Clearly, these 45-year-plus veterans have that part of their career figured out, and they’re aging like fine red wine while still killing it on the stage!
Bottom line: if the Elements of the Universe bring their 2054: The Tour to a city near you, do yourself a favor and check them out.
Especially if you’re a true fan, like yours truly.
EWF Chicago Set List (July 26, 2017):
- Shining Star
- Let Your Feelings Show (snippet)
- Sing a Song
- On Your Face
- Serpentine Fire
- Kalimba Story/Sing A Message To You
- Evil (small snippet)
- Can’t Hide Love
- Keep Your Head To The Sky
- That’s The Way of The World
- Beijo (Interlude) aka Brazilian Rhyme (Interlude)
- After The Love Has Gone
- Reasons (high note)
- Boogie Wonderland
- Let’s Groove
- Fantasy (Encore)
- In The Stone (Encore)