music review

Music review: Earth, Wind and Fire at Kennedy Center

By Dave McKenna
Saturday, February 26, 2011

Earth, Wind and Fire albums, full of a novel fusion of the falsetto harmonies of the Four Seasons with the fabulous funk of the Famous Flames, were as common as grain-alcohol punch at late-'70s dance parties. Three original members of the combo - lead vocalist Phillip Bailey, percussionist Ralph Johnson and bassist Verdine White - provided a reminder of how groovy EWF once was with a too-short but powerfully fun Thursday set of period pieces at the stately Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

After praising absentee crooning partner Maurice White, who isn't touring with the band he co-founded, Bailey gave a shout-out to all the children who've been "conceived" over the band's 40-year existence with EWF tunes as the soundtrack. The remark inspired confirming giggles from fans inside the packed theater.

Then Bailey showed he can still get everybody dancing vertically, too. Folks from the floor to the rafters boogied as he led his fellow EWF survivors and a large backing combo of younger musicians through reprises of the massive R&B singles "September," "Shining Star" and "Groove Tonight." Verdine White, sporting a frilly, shiny cowboy outfit and a vintage processed hairdo that's as anachronistic, and probably as flammable, as the Ford Pinto, appeared to be having as big a kick as anybody during a choreographed line dance for 1975's "Sing a Song."

The show was a fundraiser for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the energy in the hall flagged a bit as EWF took a break from playing to let assorted VIPs make presentations. The band got keys to the city from District Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who was cheered, and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, who was not.

Things picked back up when a massive number of gifted, talented and confident kids from the school ran through the aisles and broke into song. For several minutes, it was as if a real-life episode of "Fame" had broken out.

Then EWF returned to the stage to give the students more of something to aspire to. During the breakup ballad "Reasons" and a cover of the Stylistics' "Betcha by Golly Wow," Bailey got the crowd swooning before unleashing a string of shrieks, for which he let his voice soar as high as any diva ever soared in this high-brow hall. Sorry to break this news, kids, but no matter how good the school is, you just can't teach that.

McKenna is a freelance writer.

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