CONCORD, Calif. Though no longer touring with co-founder Maurice White, who's been sidelined with Parkinson's disease, Earth, Wind & Fire orchestrated a well-oiled, fine-tuned show Tuesday at the Chronicle Pavilion that showcased the soul-funk band's three-decade catalog of glossy R&B and pop hits.
A warm night at an outdoor venue, a hyperactive bass player, beautiful dancing women and high-pitched lead and backup vocals gliding over disco drums and bouncy funk guitars all made for a splendid evening.
Soaring vocals from lead singer Philip Bailey and other members shifted nimbly from uptempo boogie numbers with falsetto highs to soul crooning on lush, lover-man R&B grooves.
"It was incredible," 33-year-old Alex Francois of Berkeley, Calif., said. "[Bailey] cracked the sky with his voice."
Drawing liberally from their rich catalog, EWF opened the show with the classic "Boogie Wonderland" (RealAudio excerpt), and they never slowed speed, continuing on to the catchy "Let's Groove" and "After the Love Has Gone" (RealAudio excerpt), sung by Sheldon Reynolds, "Fantasy" and others.
"It was so polished," Maysie Tift, 26, of San Francisco said. "I think they arranged for the shooting stars and the full moon, too."
Songs frequently exceeded seven and eight minutes during the hour-and-a-half show. For example, "Boogie Wonderland" featured an extended Cuban-influenced jam featuring the exciting Latin rhythms of the three percussionists. Las Vegas-style choreography from red-sequin-skirted dancers Kyausha Simpson, Ayesha Orange and Joanna Collins kept everyone's eyes fixed onstage.
Original member Verdine White and longtime members Ralph Johnson and Bailey seemed utterly at home with the crowd. At one point, all three jumped into the audience area and made their way 50 feet into the center of the throng.
The amusing stage personality of bassist White who initially was introduced with the well-deserved nickname "Mr. Energy" entertained throughout, as he paced the stage at double speed and kept dashing up and down stairs onstage to find new spots to play, dance and pose for the audience. The flowing pant legs of White's all-white outfit never remained still.
Toward the end, the bandmembers, except for the percussionists, yielded the stage to the dancers, who demonstrated their considerable skills at West African dance. The tall, lean women's hair flips and jerky movements segued into backward arm windmills, and after reaching a heightened pitch of energy, the drums quieted to a light tapping and the band returned to the stage.
Punctuated by the precision of the horn section, the band launched into the disco flash of "September" (RealAudio excerpt), and the whole audience, including everyone on the lawn, rose to their feet for the crowd favorite. The anthem "Shining Star" (RealAudio excerpt) followed suit and gave no one any reason to sit back down.
EWF also covered songs by other artists, such as Parliament's 1978 R&B #1 hit "Flash Light" and Queen's 1980 #1 pop and R&B hit, "Another One Bites the Dust," which morphed into the famous first radio rap hit, the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 R&B #4 song, "Rapper's Delight" which gets its bassline from a song similar to the Queen hit Chic's 1979 R&B and pop #1 hit, "Good Times."
"They were like the spokespeople for '70s funk," Tift said.