Judge Victor Valdivia has decided that his band should be named after elements as well. Please put your hands together for Tin, Potassium & Manganese!
Our reviews of Earth, Wind & Fire: Live At Montreux 1997 (Blu-Ray) (published December 24th, 2009) and Earth, Wind & Fire: Live in Japan (published September 11th, 2008) are also available.
That's the way of the world
Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the most legendary and successful funk bands of the '70s, have released several live DVDs. In Concert, however, remains not just their best one, but a fascinating period piece of the last days of an era.
Facts of the Case
Earth, Wind & Fire: In Concert is a collection of two concerts recorded December 30 and 31, 1981, at Oakland Coliseum. Here are the songs Earth, Wind & Fire perform:
• "Let Your Feelings Show"
In some ways, as joyful and exhilarating as watching this DVD is, there's also an underlying sense of sadness as well. Though the concerts here were filmed on New Years' Eve 1981, Earth, Wind & Fire were products of the 1970s, of a very specific time and place, of a period when the possibilities for music and culture seemed endless. This was when it was possible for black artists to incorporate elements of their African culture and heritage proudly, to plan out elaborate and intricate stage shows, to make music that blended complex jazz and African polyrhythms, and to create extended, even complicated, song structures with beautiful melodies and irresistible funk grooves. Earth, Wind & Fire were captured here at their absolute critical and commercial peak. From here, the story would get less satisfying and, at times, even heartbreaking. But on this DVD at least, the band hits its stride and delivers great moment after great moment.
And, of course, there's that music, that sweet, magnificent, beautiful music. Few artists even came close to the beauty and joy of these songs. EWF's only real competition in the '70s was George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic, but the two bands couldn't have been more different. P-Funk was darker, grittier, more aggressive. Their music was a reflection of a decaying urban nightmare, of despair and rage cloaked in humor and irony. Earth, Wind & Fire was joyous and uplifting. The performers were grateful to be alive, thrilled at the possibilities of life, and wanted to share those feelings with their audiences. With Philip Bailey's stunning voice (easily the most remarkable male falsetto ever captured on record), Maurice White's skills as a bandleader, songwriter, and visionary, and a tight fourteen-piece band, EWF was one of the most tremendous live acts of their era. It's visible here, as audience members simply can't stay seated as the band hits its groove.
Captured here for an HBO concert, the band puts on its full stage show and performs several of its biggest hits. True, it's possible to quibble with the short running time, which means that several key songs are missing (Where's "Serpentine Fire"? Where's "Getaway"?). Still, it's hard to argue with much of what's here. Philip Bailey gets a showcase with "Reasons" and brings down the house with a flawless performance. The band kicks into a fierce funk jam during the medley. The band members are so exuberant during "Sing a Song" that they literally jump up and down with sheer joy. The band was touring to promote its last significant album, Raise! (released earlier that year), and the encore performance of that album's single "Let's Groove" (the last hit of note Earth, Wind & Fire would enjoy) ends the show with a bang. Of course, there's "That's the Way of the World," arguably EWF's most definitive moment. It's the song that summarizes the band's hopeful vision for life and music without being treacly or unrealistic. As the above lyric shows, the band was well aware that life could be full of sorrow, but still thought it important to maintain optimism and hope. If that sounds somewhat naïve, it's worth noting that the band came of age in the post-Civil Rights era, when it was possible to believe that the promises made during that time would be kept.
Sadly, Earth, Wind & Fire's remaining years would indicate just how badly broken many of those promises were. Though the band was still well-respected and capable of selling out stadiums in '81, the rest of the decade was not kind to EWF. The blood-soaked excesses of crack, gang violence, and severe budget cuts to inner-city aid programs led to harder, more belligerent strains of black music, especially hip-hop and new jack swing. It was no accident that EWF's hopeful positivity came to be seen as hopelessly out of step with the era, and that many rappers and producers during that time would cite George Clinton's sneering cynicism as a key influence while generally ignoring Maurice White and EWF. The band would spend the rest of the decade struggling with albums that chased after trends, rather than setting them, as EWF did in the '70s. Even more tragedy ensued in the '90s as sax player Ron Myrick (who gets a blistering solo here during "Reasons") was murdered in 1993 and White was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which permanently ended his touring and performing career. The remaining members continue to tour and record to this day, but the era captured on this DVD is gone for good. Though the band was able to enjoy a reassessment in the '90s, and its music was finally given the respect it deserved, it's still a shame that it would take that long for Earth, Wind & Fire to return to its former glory, even if now the band was more respected for its past than its present. Still, no matter the circumstances, EWF will always have a solid place in music history and will continue to influence generations of fans for years to come.
In Concert is a reissue of an earlier disc issued by the now defunct Pioneer Artists label back in 2000, in 4:3 full-screen with a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. For this reissue, Eagle Rock has added a new DTS 5.1 mix, but it's hard to tell the difference between this one and the original Dolby mix. They're both equally crisp and clear, though not quite so bass-heavy. The video quality on both versions is identical. Apart from some video glitches and grain, it's perfectly acceptable. Also added to this release is a very brief text history of the band.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, sometimes EWF's pretentions could get the better of them. If you call yourselves "The Creator's Band" with a straight face, you may just have a bit of an ego problem. The band went out of its way to put together an elaborate stage set (even hiring magician Doug Henning to design the special effects), but some aspects of this concert are, well, rather dated and corny. During the instrumental jam, Jupiter (The Battle") White and a roadie in a black mask and tights do battle as pyrotechnics go off and lasers draw images of birds into the background, presumably as a representation of good and evil. Or something. Actually, the hokey special effects and glittery costumes can seem touching, even endearing. Before the '80s descended into anger and materialism, there were still some last remaining upbeat and less cynical feelings from the '70s left. In Concert stands a reminder of the last days of that era, though it should be mentioned that some viewers might find parts of this show campy or even silly.
Any music fans who have even the slightest interest in classic funk and R&B owe it to themselves to check this one out. This is the definitive Earth, Wind & Fire DVD, capturing the band at the peak of its powers. Eagle Rock has scored a bull's-eye in reissuing this out-of-print classic.
Not at all guilty. Put it on and dance the night away.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
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