BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
Any young band should be required to witness the master class that is Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago onstage.
They don’t need lasers or Broadway-styled set pieces to get your attention. It’s simply a combination of brilliantly constructed songs that infest your soul and dazzling showmanship that gets the job done.
This is the fourth time the two powerhouse live acts have co-existed on tour and the pairing remains not only a genius move, but a tremendous value, with tickets topping out at $125.
While plenty of veteran acts share a marquee as a way to minimize their own costs and give fans the opportunity to enjoy a hits-filled night, not many share the stage to the extent of Chicago and EWF.
The Atlanta stop on their “Heart and Soul” tour Tuesday at Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood produced three hours of expert musicianship from both camps, with joint performances bookending the night.
Between them exist 20 band members and more than 50 hits, and it was apparent from the moment the crew ambled onto the stage and dove into “Beginnings” and “In the Stone” that the mutual admiration society that Chicago’s Lee Loughnane and EWF’s Ralph Johnson spoke about in our recent interview was legitimate .
Sandwiched between this double fantasy of classics was a pair of hour-long sets from each band, with EWF wowing the crowd, which filled about 3/4ths of the venue, first.
The only reason people had to not be on their feet was the enervating heat. But no amount of humidity can restrain the tsunami known as bassist Verdine White.
The Gumby-like musician turned out one of his molasses-thick bass solos on “Serpentine Fire” and was a whirling blur of joy throughout the band’s set, even standing with hand on hip and grinning while Philip Bailey tried to crack every piece of glass in the venue with the notes he hit on “Reasons.” (His son Philip Jr. participated on background vocals and several of his own vocal turns, proving that talent runs in the Bailey family.)
EWF has created some of the most gorgeous love songs ever committed to vinyl, and they unveiled many of them with record-perfect precision. “After the Love Has Gone” offered a searing sax solo from Gary Bias, while a creamy take on “That’s the Way of the World” sighed with its Zen-like philosophy.
But while the crowd appropriately swayed along with the ballads, they relied on EWF to bring the groove, which they did on their sumptuous version of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” (some, ahem, might argue that their arrangement is better than the original) and “Fantasy,” which thumped along with blasts of brass and Johnson’s snaky percussion.
Following a brief intermission, Chicago commandeered the expansive stage, which was well-designed with several risers to house the army of musicians and fitted with a giant video screen backdrop that frequently spotlighted the band’s classic logo in various shades.
Chicago showcased their musical virtuosity immediately on the winding “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” and then cruised through their musical career, from the tempo-shifting complexity of “Make Me Smile” to fluffier ‘80s fare such as “Hard Habit to Break.”
Robert Lamm and Jason Scheff divvied vocal duties on most songs, Scheff singing with his eyes scrunched shut and Lamm cool behind his keyboard. Scheff and the band’s other keyboardist, Lou Pardini, shared a moment of memorable vocal interplay on “Hard Habit,” while trumpet player Loughnane, his voice smooth and clear, handled lead duties on the ‘70s prom anthem (and piano lesson staple) “Colour My World.”
While White is the inimitable set piece in EWF, the guy handling those duties in Chicago is trombonist James Pankow. A vivid, vital presence, Pankow was impossible to ignore whenever he edged toward the front of the stage – which was often. Really, how many other bands can claim their horn section as the front line?
Drummer Tris Imboden was doing yeoman’s work behind his kit and deservedly received the spotlight for a tight drum solo with percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. in the middle of “I’m a Man,” the Spencer Davis Group song that Chicago recorded for its 1969 debut.
Keith Howland also lit up the stage, adding depth and a slight bite with his electric guitar to “You’re the Inspiration” and supplying his own muscular vocals on “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.”
Fans who clamored to hear more of the bands’ shared musicianship – especially those sizzling horns – received their wish during a rousing encore of traded hits, including “September” and “Free” (those horn exchanges alone were worth the price of admission – Ray Hermann, Reggie Young, Robert Burns and your aforementioned comrades, take a bow).
Let’s hope that these two bands of aces continue to enjoy their time together, because it will mean more opportunities to see their formidable musical offering.
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