By Chris M. Junior
Some bands handle lineup changes much better than others.
Earth, Wind & Fire is one that continues to maintain its unique sound and uplifting spirit despite a long history of personnel turnover. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame act offered plenty of proof on Sept. 27 during the first of its two scheduled shows at the Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J.
EWF’s current incarnation features three members from its glory days: bassist and co-founder Verdine White as well as singer-percussionists Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, who both joined circa 1972. As the show began, they were treated with reverence: With the rest of the band onstage vamping, White, Bailey and Johnson emerged from behind a screen, and then the full unit transitioned into “Boogie Wonderland.”
That screen and two others were put to effective use throughout the concert, showing everything from classic EWF concert footage with Maurice White to live close-up shots of Bailey playing a kalimba, the African thumb piano that’s been a key component to the band’s textured, sophisticated R&B.
As a singer, Bailey remains a powerhouse, hitting all the high notes on such classics as “Reasons” and making it look easy. On “Love Is Law,” a song from EWF’s recently released 20th studio album, “Now, Then & Forever,” he dialed it down to great effect, his sensual, feathery voice complemented by subtle horns. White and Johnson proved to be ample visual wingmen, bookending Bailey and contributing smooth steps while also handling their roles as musicians.
EWF’s other members all made their presence felt both vocally and instrumentally, and the performance of “September” near the end of the main set was a perfect example of what makes the current edition of the band work so well. With Bailey and Johnson off to the side playing percussion, backing singers Philip Bailey Jr. and B. David Whitworth took center stage and handled a chunk of the lead vocals — and nothing looked or sounded out of place.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s tour continues into November and includes stops in Atlanta (Oct. 2), Houston (Oct. 5) and Dallas (Oct. 6).