Sunday, April 03, 2016

Twice as Legendary: Earth, Wind & Fire Add Something Elemental to Twin Bill with (and in) Chicago -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Earth, Wind & Fire
United Center, Chicago
April 1, 2016
@@@@@ (for complete show)
(@@@@1/2 for each act separately)

Last August at Ravinia, I saw the band Chicago for the first time, despite their being an active entity for the entirety of my existence.

With a lot of great songs, and a handful a tad too schmaltzy for my tastes, they delivered a fine show that felt a bit too by-the-book to be exceedingly exciting.

In my @@@@ (out of 5) review, I opined that while I was glad to have added Chicago to my concert roster, I probably should have attended one of their numerous outings with Earth, Wind & Fire, another legendary band with Chicago roots that I had never seen.

Little did I know that opportunity would come, in Chicago album title parlance, just VII months later.

And with my friend Paolo, who has been telling me for years how great Earth, Wind & Fire is live, we got rather decent seats to the United Center for a face value of just $39.50, far less than the $100 face for pavilion seats at Ravinia for Chicago alone--and though I paid only $29 through StubHub for that show, this one was still a relative bargain.

EWF, which Maurice White--who passed away in February after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease--formed with brother Verdine back in 1969-70 after Maurice had been a session drummer with (the city of) Chicago's fabled Chess Records, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the year 2000.

Chicago, whose origins date to 1967 at DePaul University, will finally enter the Hall next Friday after being overlooked through many years of eligibility.

With this honor, and the recent loss of Maurice White, Friday's homecoming show of sorts had the specter of being particularly sentimental and special, especially as Chicago still includes four original members (singer/keyboardist Robert Lamm and horn players Lee Loughnane, James Pankow & Walter Parazaider) while bassist Verdine White, singer Philip Bailey and percussionist/vocalist Ralph Johnson remain from Earth, Wind and Fire's early days.

At the United Center, Lamm thanked the "36 million people who voted to put us in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," and a photo of Maurice White adorned the video backdrop during an EWF song, but for the most part, both bands were content to let the music speak for their legacies.

And it did so quite powerful, individually and especially when both acts tag-teamed onstage.

Twenty-one combined musicians initially took the stage and began, appropriately, with "Beginnings," from Chicago Transit Authority, the debut album under Chicago's original name (before the real CTA put the kibbosh on it).

The joined forces then played Earth, Wind & Fire's wonderful "In the Stone," demonstrating that this concert pairing makes musical sense, with both bands being forerunners in employing near-orchestral soundscapes with horn sections, multiple percussionists and lead vocal duties split among band members.

Although it's a shame this merits mentioning, there was also something beautiful about seeing the all-white Chicago and mostly-black Earth, Wind & Fire sharing the stage in such harmony and obvious camaraderie, echoed by one of the more diverse concert audiences I've ever been part of.

After Chicago's "Dialogue (Parts I & II)" was done in unison--with Philip Bailey singing some lines, as Lamm and other Chicago vocalists did on "In the Stone"--the stage was ceded to EWF alone for about 75 minutes.

Other than the accurately-titled "Boogie Wonderland," great ballad "After the Love is Gone" and Beatles cover "Got to Get You Into My Life," I admittedly knew most of the songs in the set due to pre-show Spotifamiliarization rather than Paolo's deep-seated fandom, but everything sounded fantastic. 

Even when shown on the video screens--and this was the first concert of dozens attended at the United Center where the Bulls/Blackhawks scoreboard was utilized to show live video; seems an idea other acts should replicate--the soon-to-turn-65 Philip Bailey looked at least 20 years younger, sang terrifically and was a most amiable front man.

"Jupiter," "Serpentine Fire," "Let's Groove" and a wicked bass solo from Verdine White were among the highlights before a brief intermission and Chicago's set.

With Lamm splitting vocal duties with bassist Jason Scheff (who sings the ballads originally sung by Peter Cetera), keyboardist Lou Pardini and assorted others, the setlist was somewhat akin to what I'd heard at Ravinia, including "Introduction," "Questions 67 & 68" and the Ballet for a Girl in Buchanon suite, comprising "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World" among others.

Including those done in conjunction with EWF, 24 Chicago songs--counting a fine cover of Spencer Davis Group's "I'm A Man"--were performed, as opposed to 32 at Ravinia. But while I missed "Old Days" and "Alive Again," I had no problem with sugary hits "If You Leave Me Now" and "Look Away" being left on the locker room floor. ("Hard Habit to Break," "You're the Inspiration," "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" and "Just You & Me" more than adequately represented the band's penchant for popular yet cloying ballads.)

And Earth, Wind & Fire being on the bill didn't just mean I got to hear another great band and nearly 3-1/2 hours worth of terrific music; I think EWF helped to make Chicago a bit more vibrant, certainly when literally sharing the stage, but even independently.

As noted in my Ravinia review, I've never owned any Chicago albums and that I'd seen over 650 concerts before I got around to seeing them also bespeaks rather middling fandom.

But at the United Center, not only did Chicago reiterate the uniqueness of their horn laden sound in a rock vein--excepting of course their tour mates--along with impressive professionalism, staying power and many a swell tune, they showed why they should have entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long ago.

I've oft read references to punk rock rising in the mid-'70s as a rejection of arena acts like Chicago--as well as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Elton John, Led Zeppelin and others--but while I will forever love the Ramones, Clash, Sex Pistols, etc., etc., the sparsity of exciting new rock 'n roll helps me better appreciate good music of any type.

And Chicago, like Earth, Wind & Fire, made plenty of it.

As many reading this blog likely know, I'm a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, and have long known that his earliest tour of arenas (in mid-1973, supporting Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ) came opening for Chicago.

But Friday, more than I ever thought about before, I noted--and mentioned to Paolo--how likely it was that Springsteen gleaned much from the experience, as the soundscape of his subsequent albums, The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle and especially Born to Run, is far grander than that of Greetings, and makes greater use of Clarence Clemons' sax playing.

On recent tours--though not his current one--Springsteen has employed a full horn section and extra percussionists, and even just the art of ensuring arena acoustics accommodate such instrumental expanse properly owes an intrinsic debt to what Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire have been doing for decades.

And the 6-song encore Friday night, with both bands romping through some of their biggest and best songs--"September," "Free," "Sing a Song," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?," "Shining Star," "25 or 6 to 4"--with festive bouts of dueling sax solos, guitar solos, lead vocal interplay and more, was one of the more ebullient concert experiences I've ever encountered.

I thought it might have been nice if Philip Bailey--his son Philip Bailey, Jr. is now also in the band--openly congratulated Chicago on their Hall induction, and touchingly appropriate for Lamm to voice a sympathetic tribute to Maurice White, but I would assume such sentiments have more earnestly shared in private.

Unlike other co-headlining tours that have seemed mainly driven by commerce--Rod Stewart and Santana--or have intrigued due to the unlikeliness of the pairings--Paul Simon and Sting, the latter soon touring with Peter Gabriel--the Chicago + Earth, Wind & Fire coupling dating back to 2004 seems steeped in genuine musical convergence...and interpersonal affinity.

Though both acts also continue to successfully tour separately, the Heart and Soul 2.0 tour showcased plenty of both while seemingly bringing out the best in one another.

All the more so in the city for which one is named and where both got started. 

No comments: