Earth, Wind & Fire concert is trip back to the ’70s
I am a child of the ’70s, so cue the Darth Vader voice when I speak to today’s pop music. Mechanical breath: “I find your lack of horns disturbing.” Force chokes an auto tune device.
Fortunately, there was no shortage of horns last Thursday night when CHIC, featuring Nile Rodgers, and Earth, Wind & Fire took the stage at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
Mechanical breath: “We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete.”
OK, that’s enough with the Vader voice. But I’ve been waiting to see “the mighty elements” since roughly the time the first “Star Wars” movie was released (and, by the way, just TRY to play that movie’s theme without horns!)
The year 1977 was big. It brought us a world of Force-using Jedi knights that has endured to this day and it was the year HBO first turned a profit. And it was HBO that soon after introduced me to another life-force altering world via a wholly terrible and therefore unforgettable 1978 movie, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Life-force altering? Well, how do YOU explain (spoiler alert) a weather vane springing into life as Billy Preston who then, in turn, brings Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) back from the dead with a magical blast of his gold lamé clad finger while singing “Get Back” and clutching a, you guessed it, HORN? How, I ask you?
The movie – which starred the gawdawful Peter Frampton as Billy Shears and, much to my Barry Gibbs-crush-havin’ heart, the Bee Gees as the eponymous band – was best when it funk-ified the Beatles songs it relied on and (forgive me, I was a child) I loved it. Every time it came on – which in those days was a LOT – I was enthralled. And never more than when the band is distracted by a colorful and engaging band
performing a Heartland benefit concert while, in the background, Strawberry is surreptitiously abducted by Mean Mr. Mustard.
The band distracting the boys? Earth, Wind & Fire. EWF, for short. And, no question, their performance of “Got to Get You into My Life” was appropriately distracting in all its funky, horn-laden, multi-colored costumed glory. Motown’s Lil’ Kel was hooked! I’d heard them on the radio, of course, but in a time that predates MTV music videos, seeing them perform on screen was a whole new revelation.
It would take nearly four decades and a chance ticket windfall to convert seeing them on screen to seeing them in person; and when I did, I was bobbing along to the EWF groove just as Billy and the boys had done, completely oblivious to the world around me as “the elements” put on show.
There were no brightly-colored dashiki tunics, but Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson were no less showy in their coordinated silver lamé – a costume theme that carried through the backup band and vocalists, including Bailey’s son, Philip Jr., and B. David Whitworth. And they put on quite a show.
But not until after CHIC, featuring Nile Rodgers, did.
Admittedly, I was initially less enthusiastic about seeing CHIC. Like any good disco-era kid, I knew “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” but I’ve been burned by aging two-hit-wonder acts on stage before. Well, I had no idea what I was in for. None. They rocked the house, due in no small part to Nile Rodgers. I hadn’t known anything about him going in (or, more to the point, I didn’t KNOW that I knew anything about him) but it turns out the Hall of Fame songwriter and super-producer is behind a lot of top-notch songs recorded by other artists, including Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” and the inescapable 2013 Daft Punk hit “Get Lucky.”
That last mega-hit was the result of an intensely renewed focus on his music in recent years. Six years ago, Rodgers said, he was diagnosed with such an aggressive form of prostate cancer that his doctor told him it was time to start contemplating the “what ifs.” That contemplation lead to his throwing himself into his work, producing as much as he possibly could while he still could. So when he got a phone call from “two French guys called Daft Punk and a gentleman named Pharell Williams” he was in.
As the band prepared to play “Get Lucky,” Rodgers announced, “I feel like the luckiest man in the world tonight because I am standing here before you in Nashville, Tennessee, and I am cancer free!”
Rodgers and the band finished their set with the anticipated CHIC songs, sliding into The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” a song that relied on the “Good Times” hook so much that Rodgers earned a writer’s credit on it.
A special mention should be made of the incredible vocals provided by the ladies in the band, Kimberly Davis and Folami Ankoanda, who not only backed the band throughout but also took the stunning lead on Rodgers’-penned Diana Ross hits and the Sister Sledge classic “We Are Family.” When Rodgers told Davis to “show ’em what you’re working with,” the vocal gymnastics she performed were nothing short of phenomenal.
After CHIC finished its set, the curtain behind them was removed to reveal a three-tiered pyramid stage set for the 12-stong EWF band. As the group’s signature starship “landed” via video projection, the group – complete with horn section – took the stage and kept the already dancing crowd on their feet for the remainder of the three-hour concert.
EWF owned the stage from the first song, “Shining Star.” That was followed by “Getaway” and “Sing a Song,” in which both the Baileys and Whitworth provided some sweet falsetto harmonies.
Before launching into the less well-known “Kalimba Story,” Bailey asked the crowd, “How many true Earth, Wind & Fire fans are here?” Answering the crowd’s cheer, he said “true Earth, Wind & Fire fans don’t mind hearing songs that weren’t Top 10 on the charts” but which were “top 10s in our hearts.” Sure enough, the crowd was wowed by Bailey’s beautiful work on the kalimba, Johnson’s percussion and the groove of White’s funky bass.
Bailey’s beautiful instrument work didn’t stop with the kalimba, of course; even at age 66 the man’s vocal instrument is one to be reckoned with – as he proved by reaching some seriously high notes during “Reasons,” after which he pointed heavenward in thanks.
Speaking of heaven, the loss last year of Maurice White, a founding member who shared lead vocal duties with Bailey until he quit touring in 1994 due to complications of Parkinson’s disease, was not forgotten. Images of the singer respectfully formed the backdrop of a subtle tribute as the band transitioned from its performance of “Devotion” into “That’s the Way of the World.”
But it was the end set that really set the crowd aroar. I don’t care who you are, if you can stay still when this band plays “September,” “Boogie Wonderland” and “Let’s Groove,” I’ve got bad news for you. You’re dead.
When it was time for an encore, it was hard to imagine what they could possibly return to play. When they did return, I wanted to slap my poor imagination silly for forgetting the international hit “Fantasy.” It never topped the charts, reaching the number 12 spot on the Billboard R&B chart in 1978, but its enduring popularity earned it a Grammy nomination and the song was certified gold in 2011 after its release as a digital single in 2009.
Finally, they ended the evening with “In the Stone,” pulling out all the stops to close out a truly funky evening.
“Good Times” indeed.
Now, excuse me, I’ve got a cheesy old movie to watch.
Kelly Lapczynski may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.