Earth, Wind & Fire to headline Jazz Aspen June Experience
If You Go …
Who: Earth, Wind & Fire
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience, Benedict Music Tent
When: Saturday, June 24, 8:30 p.m.
How much: $75.95-$149.95
The last time Earth, Wind & Fire played Aspen, the timeless hit-makers flexed some supernatural muscle.
During their afternoon set at the 2014 Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival, dark clouds gathered overhead and it began to drizzle. But the band seemed to will the bad weather away with their sunny songs in an thrilling set that ran through four-plus decades of classics. The light rain appeared to stop on cue during “Devotion,” as Philip Bailey sang, “Here’s a song to make your day brighter.”
Bassist Verdine White peacocked around the stage throughout the set, outfitted in a ruffled pirate shirt and sequined, tasseled aqua blue pants. The 63-year-old’s high leg kicks stayed fairly low and his funky histrionics have slowed a bit since Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘70s heyday, but his skills on the bass appeared undiminished as he drove the 14-man band through songs like “Boogie Wonderland,” “Sing a Song,” “Shining Star,” “That’s the Way of the World” and “September.”
Looking out at the young-ish crowd, Bailey quipped, “Some of you were probably conceived to Earth, Wind & Fire. That makes us musical godfathers of sorts.”
Earth, Wind & Fire – which returns to Aspen to headline Jazz Aspen’s June Experience on Saturday night – has played the White House twice, at the invitation of two different presidents (not the current one). 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 does Earth, Wind & Fire have left to achieve?
“People say, ‘Should you retire because you’ve done everything?’” White said during the band’s 2014 swing through Aspen. “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.”
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 the like — 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 — 2013’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.” “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 in the new millennium, 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 44 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. 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 died last year — 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.”
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