Earth, Wind & Fire at Mohegan Sun Arena, May 13, 2011
Celebrating their 40th year in music, Earth, Wind & Fire sizzled through an inspired show at Mohegan Sun Arena on May 13 like it was 1971.
Led by three original members, Philip Bailey on vocals and percussion, Ralph Johnson on vocals and percussion and bassist Verdine White, EW&F played performed their hits and commanded the stage as one of the greatest bands ever.The band’s founder, Maurice White, retired from touring a few years back but still writes, produces and otherwise contributes to the band.The group’s youngbloods made potent contributions to their classic hits, as well.
Blasting out of the blocks with five uptempo, instantly-recognizable dance hits, the group took the stage with their disco-era smash “Boogie Wonderland.”Like many of the selections during the night, the band reworked the tune slightly, adding a funky breakdown in the middle heightened by flashing red lights and strobes, and the party was on.They sweetly segued into “Singasong,” with the band members in constant motion on stage, especially vocalist/percussionist B. David Whitworth matching the legendary, kinetic energy of Verdine White, who sets the bar pretty high for showtime.With their 1974 breakout hit, “Shining Star,” you couldn’t help but appreciate how tightly-crafted these records were and how well they’ve held up over the years.
Philip Bailey’s son, Philip Bailey Jr., helps out on vocals along with Whitworth, Johnson and Bailey, Sr., all filling the considerable void left by the departure of Maurice White.The multi-octave Bailey was heard singing some of the lines originally sung by White but whoever was on the mike, the sound was pure EW&F.The horn section of Bobby Burns, Jr. (trumpet), Reggie Young (trombone) and Gary Bias (saxophone) stepped to the front of the stage to finish off “Shining Star” and kick off the screaming intro to “Getaway,” with Ralph Johnson smoothly handling the lead vocal.At times, the onstage swirl of activity would lock into something choreographed, such as when the entire band moved as a tight pack on stage during this song, but it still comes off as fun and spontaneous.Contributing a solo here was Verdine White, always the epitome of on-stage style, dressed in a fabulous, retro-inspired, ruffled white shirt and white pants with brown fringe.
The Latin rhythms of “Serpentine Fire” had all the vocalists on congas and timbales.The band settled into an extended percussion break into the middle, then Bailey led the crowd in a singalong of the “oh yeah, oh yeah!” refrain.
Clockwise from left: Ralph Johnson, Philip Bailey and Verdine White
After those five fast-paced dance hits, the group settled into its first ballad, beginning the center section of the show, a moody, soulful group of selections beginning with “Devotion,” featuring a lengthy, precise sax solo from Gary Bias and funky keyboard solo by Musical Director Myron McKinley.
Then it was Philip Bailey alone on stage with the kalimba, the African thumb piano popularized by Maurice White, who evidently has passed on his mastery of the instrument.It was a sweet, soulful passage as he played with eyes closed, facing heavenward, then the band joined in with the rhythmic “Kalimba Story,” and Bailey rocked the house with a funked-up kalimba solo.
Next up was the guitar players’ chance to shine.Earth, Wind and Fire has two excellent guitarists (it was Johnny Graham and Al McKay back in the day) in Greg Moore and Morris O’Connor.Moore soloed on an extended blues jam with the vocalists jumping in with the refrain from Ray Charles’ “Nighttime Is The Right Time.”Bailey and Johnson waged a vicious call-and-response battle on congas and timbales then the band kicked into the groove and trumpeter Bobby Burns, Jr. blew a hot solo (that sounded, to this reviewer anyway, like Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny”) that gave way to a smokin’, Santana-like solo from guitarist O’Connor.
It was Bailey’s show here with his signature song, “Reasons,” that sent the crowd into rapture and he was rewarded with a monstrous ovation at the end.That was followed by the Beatles’ cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life” with Moore’s guitar solo and then into “Fantasy,” all hot Latin rhythm, punchy horns and Bailey’s sweet voice. It was singalong time with their fave hit “September,” with Bailey Jr. and Whitworth taking turns on lead vocals and Whitworth crisscrossing the stage with White, keeping the band in constant motion and energy.Whitworth doesn’t just play timbales, he dances with them, teases them, toys with them; playing backwards at times and even karate-kicking the cymbals!
With their backs to the crowd, the familiar intro of “Let’s Groove” sets the group into their final song of the night, breaking into a rollicking, sizzling funk jam.
What appeared to be a sellout crowd at the Arena thoroughly enjoyed this 40th Anniversary edition of EW&F.For those who missed it, the group returns to New England for a June 24th date in Boston, June 25th at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. and July 2nd at the Ives Center in Danbury, CT.