This review was originally posted on The Orange County Register Web site on Sunday, February 20, 2011.
Watching Earth, Wind & Fire perform before a near-capacity crowd at Honda Center Saturday night (Feb. 19, 2011), it suddenly occurred to me: This is the band that should be featured at the next Super Bowl halftime show.
Compared to how disposable the Black Eyed Peas were in Dallas earlier this month — not to mention how forgettable they were opening for U2 at the Rose Bowl in October 2009 — such lackluster sets don’t appear to be in EW&F’s playbook.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary as a group this year, EW&F, the Hall of Fame outfit that has inspired countless modern-day hit-makers, headlined Front & Center 2011, an annual fund-raiser held to benefit Cal State Fullerton’s President’s Scholars Program. Over the course of 90 magical minutes, the 12-member troupe demonstrated that dance music need not be routine, tender ballads need not be syrupy, and that great bands can appeal to listeners who don’t fit into a single demographic.
The performance featured a minimal amount of mindless chit-chat, save for a thank-you to the university’s talented students for offering a song-and-dance introduction to the band and, later, to introduce the full EW&F ensemble.
Instead, the night was all about the music, with singer Philip Bailey, singer-percussionist Ralph Johnson and always-in-motion bassist Verdine White (the three remaining original members) leading the sonic charge with a top-notch cast of rhythm players, a blasting horn section, keyboards and two guitarists. All of them somehow never let things escape from the pocket no matter how much dancing or dazzling lights were going on around them.
Whether performing the band’s early material rooted in more traditional R&B (“Sing a Song,” “Shining Star”) or romantic ballads featuring Bailey’s still-soaring falsetto (“Reasons,” “After the Love Has Gone”) or later hits that blended soul and jazz with disco and funk (“Boogie Wonderland”), the large ensemble always got it right.
Highlights came near the end of the concert, with forceful renditions of the haunting “Fantasy” and the more upbeat anthem “September,” offering a one-two punch that could well impress the masses at a football halftime show or anywhere else.
The master of ceremonies for this event was acclaimed baritone Jubilant Sykes, who discussed strong lessons he learned as a student at Cal State Fullerton. He also sang two winning selections to the delight of the crowd, including “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Witness,” the latter an emotive spiritual featured on his latest album, Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland and Spirituals, which he delivered a cappella, allowing him to showcase his incredible voice.