News Column

Review: Earth, Wind & Fire celebrate the season at the Hollywood Bowl

September 14, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 14--Rave all you want about the peak of summer at the Hollywood Bowl, but let's not forget about September. With heat dissipating and the moon creeping in earlier, post-Labor Day nights in Hollywood can similarly burn if the vibe and the sounds are right.

"Do you remember the 21st night of September? Love was changing the mind of pretenders," sang Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire during the first of three sold-out nights at the Bowl. A song that seemed handcrafted for the occasion (give or take a week), "September" bumped through the crowd, denting the memories of thousands.

As the stage lit up, a dozen band members pushing out rhythm, bass, brass, guitar and keyboards along with Bailey's stunning voice, the Bowl's shell strobed rainbow colors a la Tony Manero's favorite dance floor.

The group, born in Los Angeles after founder Maurice White relocated from Chicago, stoked both the memories and the booties of former '70s disco queens and studly kings with classic party jams like "Boogie Wonderland" and "Let's Groove" while introducing a few choice tracks from its new studio album, "Now, Then & Forever."

Add in the full power of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under the direction of Thomas Wilkins, which fueled bangers such as "Sing a Song" and new cut "Dance Floor," and the result was a set filled with fireworks.

Not a surprising development given their joyful spirit, perhaps, but it's easy to take Earth, Wind & Fire for granted. Their hits are so ubiquitous, their choruses so sweet, that the group has been taken less seriously as innovators.

Funk snobs tend to ignore their early '70s work in favor of Sly and the Family Stone, Fela Kuti, Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder, unaware, for example, that this band performed the music for Melvin Van Peebles' classic of independent black cinema, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." Soul sophisticates ignore them as punishment for their mid-'70s disco hits. Disco DJs tend to pass over their classic string of albums from 1973 to 1980 in favor of sounds at the time coming from New York and Miami.

But this is a band born from the convergence of some of the most assured players on the funk scene, three of whom remain in the performing lineup: Bailey, bassist and fellow Chicago transplant Verdine White and singer-percussionist Ralph Johnson. (Maurice White, the band's founder -- and Verdine's older brother -- has Parkinson's disease, and no longer performs, but remains a member in spirit.)

Any doubters as to the aim of Earth, Wind and Fire's music needed only pay attention to Verdine, who stomped the stage in sparkly bell bottoms so wide they looked like a floor-length skirt. On "Serpentine Fire," the gangly man with long, straight black hair delivered bottom-end funk lines and bass-slapped exclamation points with the energy of a teen. If Daft Punk tours on "Random Access Memories," they'd do well to give Verdine a call.

Much of the surrounding Hollywood area must have heard Bailey's soaring, often awe-inspiring voice during its peaks. Drifting across octaves like an Olympic hurdler, Bailey over the course of the evening gradually expanded his delivery: loosening it during early songs "Boogie Wonderland" and "My Promise," relaxing it during his hypnotic meditation, "Kalimba Story," which featured him plucking out a melody on the kalimba (an African thumb piano).

He and the band eased into the set with a round of intimate songs, the kind that have scored many a candlelit night. In a climactic mid-set highlight, "Reasons," Bailey hit a falsetto so high that it may have cracked windshields on the Hollywood Freeway. The crowd gave him a deserved ovation.

Like a well-paced DJ set, though, Earth, Wind & Fire understood what had to happen in the final section: Dance party. Their version of the Beatles "Got to Get You Into My Life" soared in like a gust of wind. On "Let's Groove" they suggested that we "glide like a 747 and lose yourself in the sky."

And on "September," the group wondered on the ninth month and its sweet promise of seasonal change. "Our hearts were ringing, in that key our souls were singing," they offered in harmony, the fans on their feet fully immersed in a moment that the band was recounting onstage: "Do you remember dancing in September?"

Yes we do.

___

(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times

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