Mighty mighty

Earth, Wind & Fire brings its old-school R&B joint to Marysville

Earth, Wind & Fire: That’s Verdine White looking like Billy Dee Williams with long hair, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson.

Earth, Wind & Fire: That’s Verdine White looking like Billy Dee Williams with long hair, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson.

Live! 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 29, at Sacramento Valley Amphitheater, Forty Mile Road at Plumas Arboga Road, south of Marysville between Highways 65 and 70. $29.25 - $49.25. With Rufus featuring Chaka Khan.

Verdine White can rattle off the names of every Earth, Wind & Fire song, can give you the year it came out and even can tell you how it charted—all within a matter of seconds. But when you ask him what his favorite song is, well, that information doesn’t come as quickly.

“Now, that’s tough,” he says with a laugh during a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I just can’t go there. I’ll leave that for the fans to have fun with.”

With a musical catalog as diverse and voluminous as Earth, Wind & Fire’s, choosing a favorite would be a formidable task for even the staunchest EW&F fan. Think about it: “Shining Star,” “Reasons,” “That’s the Way of the World,” Can’t Hide Love,” “September,” “After the Love Is Gone,” “Boogie Wonderland.” That’s just a few.

If it’s any consolation, White says, the group intends to play every one of those hits—their extended versions—as well as introduce some new material at its “Cool Blue September Tour,” which rolls into the Sacramento Valley Amphitheater on Saturday, September 29. Also on the bill are Rufus featuring Chaka Khan.

“Wherever we traveled, people always wanted to know when we would do a mega-concert with a great old-school R&B band,” says White. “Well, here it is. We really wanted to do this show with Chaka Khan and Rufus years ago. And now both groups are getting together. Anyone who loves real musicianship will feel this concert.”

EW&F no longer uses all the elaborate pyrotechnics and magic acts that made its shows in the ’70s and ’80s a visual tour de force. And group founder Maurice White (Verdine’s brother) no longer tours with the band; he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago, but he kept his illness private until the traveling became too much of a burden.

Still, attending a show by EW&F—led by original members Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, with a sizzling ensemble of 13 musicians and a trio of singers—delivers musically; it’s R&B, funk, soul, gospel and rock at its finest. “We’ve really always been a group that has defied categorization,” White says. “That’s part of our mystique, and what I think has contributed largely to our success.”

Although EW&F’s earlier music—from its 1971 release, The Need of Love, and follow-ups Last Days and Time, Head to the Sky and 1974’s Open Your Eyes (the band’s first commercial breakthrough release, which spawned the hit single “Mighty Mighty”)—changed the face of black music with messages of spiritual unity, White acknowledges that today’s music is different. “It’s definitely harder now to get new music played on the radio,” he says. “It seems they are looking for that certain sound. But if you can come with an undeniably powerful record, you can break down those stifling barriers. Artists like Jill Scott and Eric Benet have done that. Their music was outside the box. But it was so fresh and brilliant that it couldn’t be ignored.”

White says that while fans may love the band’s old stuff, he doesn’t want the group to become an oldies act, relegated to performing its early material. “We’ve got to expand and update our sound without losing our identity,” he says. EW&F hopes that collaborations with contemporary R&B vocalists Eric Benet and Wyclef Jean on the group’s new CD will help connect with a new audience hungry for authentic soul. It’s due out early next year.

“We still have a lot to prove musically, not only to our fans but to ourselves,” says White, who—along with Bailey and Johnson—turned 50 this year. “We’ve enjoyed a phenomenal 30-year run, which culminated in us being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year,” White concludes. “We’re not ready just yet to sit back and take it easy. We still know how to rock and roll.”