Earth, Wind & Fire take to the road with hits — and sad­ness


Earth, Wind & Fire goes on the road this sum­mer with some clas­sic hits, a new tour­ing part­ner and lin­ger­ing heartache.

The hits in­clude Septem­ber, Shining Star and Boo­gie Won­der­land, while they’ll share the stage with the band Chic, fea­tur­ing Nile Rodgers. The sad­ness comes from the loss last year of their founder Mau­rice White.

“We’re still heal­ing,” said drum­mer Ralph John­son, one of three orig­i­nal mem­bers still play­ing the band’s in­fec­tious hooks. “I think the way we’ve dealt with it has been to do the mu­sic.”

Con­cert­go­ers at the band’s show at Toronto’s Air Canada Cen­tre Sun­day night can ex­pect a teary memo­rial to White amid the disco grooves and horn-driven funk. The band has al­ways hon­oured its miss­ing mem­ber — White stopped tour­ing in 1995 — but this time the sec­tion has a fi­nal kiss to it.

“It’s not some­thing you get over. Mau­rice will al­ways be part of us. We cut our teeth on Earth, Wind and Fire. He was our men­tor, our leader, our Elvis, our John Len­non, all in one guy,” said White’s brother, Ver­dine.

Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic are call­ing the trek 2054 The Tour and it looks back­ward to the hey­day of the in­fa­mous disco Stu­dio 54 and to a shiny, elec­tronic fu­ture. Each venue will be re­con­fig­ured to make it eas­ier for the bands to in­ter­act with danc­ing fans.

Each night, af­ter un­leash­ing a topheavy Ver­dine White, left, Philip Bai­ley and Ralph John­son are Earth, Wind and Fire. The band plays the ACC Sun­day. string of hits, Earth, Wind & Fire get se­ri­ous dur­ing the White trib­ute. It comes dur­ing the song That’s the Way of the World, when a video memo­rial of Mau­rice White plays. He died at 74 last year af­ter suf­fer­ing from Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

John­son and Ver­dine White — joined by fel­low orig­i­nal mem­ber, singer Philip Bai­ley — said they try to avoid look­ing at each other dur­ing the show’s memo­rial part for fear that tears will fall. Many fans stop to pull out cell­phones and cap­ture the mo­ment.

“Ev­ery­thing is fun, fun, fun, fun. Then we get to that sec­tion and that’s when the show gets heart. All we see is just phones,” said White. “It’s heavy. It’s deep. It’s beau­ti­ful, though.”

Earth, Wind & Fire was in­ducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, played the 2005 Su­per Bowl half­time show and has six Gram­mys. The band’s Got to Get You Into My Life was on Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s first Spo­tify playlist.

Each gen­er­a­tion seems to re­dis­cover the band, in part be­cause pop­u­lar cul­ture can’t get enough of its bouncy vibe. Last year, in one Novem­ber week­end, the band had three songs in the world’s top Trolls Doc­tor two movies — Strange.

“We’re part of peo­ples’ lives. As they say, ‘the sound­track of their lives’ — lit­er­ally,” said White. “They al­ways want pic­tures: ‘Can I take this for my dad or my mom?’ ‘Will you sign this for my dad?’ We get that all the time.”

Satel­lite and clas­sic rock ra­dio keep the band’s hits alive and on­line ser­vices like iTunes, SoundCloud and Shazam have made their work ac­ces­si­ble. A band that started on vinyl turns out to be thriv­ing in the dig­i­tal age.

“They can get to us. They can dis­cover and us. And re­dis­cover us and re­dis­cover us and turn a friend on to us,” said White. “So when we’re do­ing the con­cert, they’re Googling and they’re buy­ing songs they didn’t even know that ex­isted. So ac­tu­ally I think it’s been a big help.”

Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic hit the road prov­ing that nos­tal­gia acts are still re­li­able tour sell­ers. Other bands from the 1970s like Queen, For­eigner, Bos­ton, Aero­smith, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Billy Joel and Rod Ste­wart are also tour­ing this year.

“I think peo­ple will al­ways be en­am­oured with bands that can re­ally play — live per­for­mance. You can’t beat that,” John­son said. “There’s some­thing you get from a live per­for­mance you can’t get from a record or a CD. The ex­pe­ri­ence is very dif­fer­ent.”

How long will they keep at it? Un­til the boo­gie won­der­land stops.

“Mau­rice wanted a band that could play all gen­res of mu­sic and a band that would not be stand­ing still on­stage. We’re al­ways in mo­tion, there’s al­ways some­thing go­ing on,” said John­son.

“We’re just car­ry­ing on the vi­sion. This is the legacy. The three of us — Ver­dine, Philip and my­self — we’re car­ry­ing on for as long, as I tell peo­ple, we put butts in the seats.”

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