Shining Stars: Earth Wind & Fire at Labor Day Experience
If You Go …
Who: Earth, Wind & Fire
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience, Snowmass Town Park
When: Saturday, Aug. 30, 5 p.m.
Tickets and more info: www.jazzaspensnowmass.org
Earth, Wind & Fire has played the White House twice, at the invitation of two different presidents. The band has won six Grammys and sold 90 million records. Its members are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the NAACP Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and are enshrined most anywhere that musicians are put on plaques. The long-running outfit is credited with changing the sound of pop music in the ’70s with their uplifting brand of soul-infused funk. So what on earth are Earth, Wind & Fire aiming to achieve in 2014?
“People say, ‘Should you retire because you’ve done everything?’” bassist Verdine White said with a laugh from a recent tour stop in Minnesota. “But with us, it’s getting bigger and bigger every year, so it’s always proof that we’re doing something good. … We just want to keep growing, keep getting better and keep doing it.”
Along with the elaborate stage shows they bring on tour and to such festivals as this weekend’s Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience, Earth, Wind & Fire has tried to keep itself creatively alive with new challenges. A performance next month in London’s Hyde Park with the BBC Concert Orchestra, for instance, with an expected crowd of 40,000, promises to be a new notch in the band’s belt.
“There’s always surprises in store,” White said.
It’s easy to forget — given the Earth, Wind & Fire stamp on recent nu-disco hits from the likes of Daft Punk, Bruno Mars and Robin Thicke — that their danceable style fell far out of favor for a long period beginning in the mid-1980s. One remarkable aspect of Earth, Wind & Fire’s most recent album — last year’s “Now, Then & Forever” — is that it manages to be both a throwback to the band’s old ’70s classics and stand alongside today’s albums like Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.” The new song “My Promise,” for instance, is a classic-sounding Earth, Wind & Fire cut with an impeccable horn arrangement, an uplifting message, a funk groove from White and group vocals backing up Philip Bailey’s tenor.
White said he doesn’t give much thought to artists who are today continuing the Earth, Wind & Fire legacy.
“I don’t think it’s about anyone carrying on our stuff,” White said. “I think music today is in pretty good hands.”
He points to Mars, Pharrell Williams and Adele as some of his current favorites.
And he’s upbeat about the future of music. The downward spiral of record sales over the last decade, as music has moved to online streaming and piracy, has also bread an unprecedented diversity in popular styles, he argued. Instead of one dominant mode of pop, he noted, divergent acts out of the soul, rock, folk and electronic traditions can all find listeners.
A new generation of fans are also discovering Earth, Wind & Fire for the first time.
“What’s fun is it brings a lot of people together — young and old,” White said of the band’s recent shows. “We’re always happy to be doing that.”
Performing 41 years since their breakout album, 1973’s “Head to the Sky,” White remains exhilarated. He’s not road-weary or jaded as some veteran artists (his fevered stage theatrics and skills on the bass are likewise mostly undiminished at age 63.) He credits the continued vigor to those fresh fans finding Earth, Wind & Fire for the first time.
“You’ve got a lot of new people, a lot of young people, people who haven’t seen us before, and they’re very enthusiastic about the music,” he explained. “A lot of these young people are looking back — they’re looking at us on YouTube or asking their fathers or older siblings about what was going on with Earth, Wind & Fire or Miles Davis or the Beatles. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
White’s dexterous, show-stealing work on bass and his on-stage showmanship are the stuff of funk legend. But he came out of the classical tradition. White was studying acoustic bass in Chicago and planning a classical career when his older brother, Maurice — who had been working as a session drummer and was putting together a new lineup for what would become Earth, Wind & Fire — called him from Los Angeles and asked him to join the band in 1972.
The sound they helped pioneer, White said, was as influenced by Jimi Hendrix as Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” Crosby, Stills and Nash, Motown, James Brown and the Beatles — the sonic melting pot of the early 1970s.
The band took the eclectic and experimental music of the time and made something new out of it — a complex brand of pop-blending soul, funk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and what would become disco. “Shining Star,” for instance, meshes funk basslines, jazz horns, one guitar hero solo and soulful vocal harmonies into the kind of indelible song that, today, it’s hard to imagine ever didn’t exist.
That song — surpassed only by the good-times anthem “September” in pop culture ubiquity in the Earth, Wind & Fire catalog — has its roots here in Colorado. As the story goes, the band was recording at the legendary Caribou Ranch studio outside Nederland, when Maurice White took a walk and mused on the starry mountain sky, then wrote “Shining Star.”
Verdine White said they didn’t sense they had timeless classics on their hands when they were putting together hits in their ’70s heyday and arranging songs like “Fantasy,” “Boogie Wonderland” or “That’s the Way of the World.”
“We knew we had something good. We didn’t know we had all this — the last 30, 40 years — because you never know,” he said. “But we knew we had something good.”
Currently touring as an 11-piece with an accompanying three-man horn section, founder Maurice White no longer tours with the band, leaving three core members that have stuck together since 1972: Philip Bailey on vocals and drums, Verdine White on bass and Ralph Johnson on percussion and vocals.
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