The range of attire was off the scale at the fair’s centerpiece Earth, Wind & Fire concert July 27. And so was the music, with soaring vocals, the roar of brass and thunder of drums.
The “Evening of Music & Wine” show drew everything from Mexican serapes and 3-foot-wide sombreros to no-holds-barred hippie attire, with psychedelic-print-flared bell-bottom pants, wild shirts and amazingly out-to-there Afro wigs. (There’s nothing like seeing someone dolled up in the teen fashions of 40 years ago to make us realize how silly we looked.)
Audience costuming was just one measure of fans’ devotion to the band, also demonstrated by the size of the crowd. According to fair spokesman Tom Keffury, the more than 6,000 attendees made the Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) show the fair’s best attended wine-and-jazz show ever, out of 18 of those events.
The Chumash arena’s back grandstands weren’t full, but the reserved-table seating areas were (they always sell out, Keffury said, and many patrons hold them year to year, like season tickets to a ball game). Regular grandstands were well filled. So were special areas for handicapped concert-goers … the most able-bodied of whom eventually had to overflow into adjacent sections.
Yes, many attendees were in the bald/white hair-and-cane crowd. But all that faded into the background as soon as the object of their devotion took the stage, without preamble or opening act.
The announcer’s roar of “Earth …. Wind …. & Fire” was met by the welcoming roar of a crowd anxious to hear the hits of their past.
While EWF is best known for its long roster of rock and roll hits — many of which the large band played at the concert — the jazz musicianship behind that R&R is stellar and rooted in the Ramsey Lewis Trio background of founder Maurice White, who is still the group’s composer-producer.
At the fair concert, long piano solos and guitar runs, trumpet trills, trombone slides and sax slithers stretched EWF’s classics into mini jam sessions.
Some attendees came from many miles away to see a band that launched its career four decades ago. For instance, senior citizen David Peterson came from Riverside to sit on hard bleachers with friend Denise Harris of Arroyo Grande. Peterson, who’s undergone a dozen back and hip surgeries, was joyously rocking out, despite having just gotten out of the hospital a week earlier. “And you know what?” he hollered over the music. “This is fabulous!”
Meanwhile, the onstage tone was a blend of classic hits and casual postures and attire (jeans and blazers or vests).
Leader-specialty drummer Philip Bailey (who joined the revamped, 2-year-old band in 1972) often hit his astonishingly high notes with his left hand stuck jauntily in his jeans pocket. Heaven knows, he hasn’t lost his falsetto chops. Indeed, most vocals were done in the tenor-and-up ranges.
The band frequently shifted from casual to choreography, sliding into synchronized steps and waving of arms.
While some sort of “the wave” is done at most shows these days, it was a wonder some EWF audience members had any blood left in their hands by the end of the more than two-hour set. The ongoing waves, both spontaneous and strongly encouraged by band members, made the table-seating area look like a convention of agitated octopi.
Bailey frequently interacted with the audience. “All you beautiful people look fantastic out there!” he yelled at the outset.
Later, he turned sentimental, saying when band members “think of the 41 years we’ve been able to play music for you …. I think the word would be … gratitude.”
In fact, Bailey’s vocalist son Philip Bailey, Jr., now is part of the band’s lineup.
The show’s video-screen backdrops were stunning, morphing from EWF’s trademark flames or firefalls to psychedelic kaleidoscopic patterns, a stained-glass-window effect, writhing Pucci-esque patterns and a sentimental roll of the band’s many album covers.
To the delight of the faithful, the band just kept on belting out hits from its eight Top 10, double-platinum albums — which had produced eight Grammy Awards and four American Music Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Near the concert’s end, as EWF blasted the audience with “September,” “Let’s Groove Tonight” and encores such as “In the Stone,” the rationale behind the band’s name was in full view.
Earth, Wind & Fire is the earthly grounding of voices, piano and percussion you feel in your bones and your soul … the soaring wind of the brass and vocal gymnastics … and the fire of hot music and the obvious musical passion of the band members and the audience.
Photo (top): Brittany App
Bottom two photos: Richard Tanner
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