Concert review: Earth, Wind, & Fire

Musical icons Earth, Wind, & Fire celebrate 40 years of music at the Kennedy Center courtesy of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Photo: Brian Nielsen/DukeEllington School of the Arts

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2011— For Earth, Wind & Fire and their fans, celebrating forty years of  funk, R&B, jazz fusion, began at 7:30 p.m. sharp. Invited to the Kennedy Center by the Duke Ellington School of Music, the evening was a celebration of the band’s more than forty years in music.

Earth, Wind, & Fire

Earth, Wind, & Fire

The Kennedy Center is a sit-down venue with fixed seating, while Earth, Wind, & Fire is a band that’s inherently about movement.

If Earth, Wind, & Fire ever lost a step or slowed down along the way, it would’ve been impossible to tell. They beamed on stage like a band that was just starting to hit their stride instead of the veteran performers that they are.

In a conflict of venue vs. band, the band ended up winning as it was rare to see anyone sitting down. Even the audience members, obviously more prone to laying back, were on their feet before too long.

Earth, Wind, & Fire began in 1969, originally with brothers Maurice and Verdine White however the groups officially recognized anniversary date is when the group reformed to add long-time members Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, originally the band’s drummer, but now performing in-front of the kit.

Those four members have been the backbone of the band since its debut, appearing in every incarnation since then. Weaving their way in and out of relevancy over the past four decades, Earth, Wind & Fire has managed to stay together, rendering any question about when they mattered irrelevant.

Throughout the course of their career, Earth, Wind, & Fire has been the one of the most recognized funk bands, and one of the most successful crossover artists in the genre.

Well known for raucous live shows as much as their pop hits, the songs and music of Earth, Wind & Fire has roots in 70’s funk era. However as time and music genres passed, the band continued and the songs earned a timeless quality.  

Even though they’ve been playing songs like “Shining Star” and “Mighty Mighty” for decades, they still clearly enjoy the reaction those songs get out of the crowd.

The show itself was a visual spectacle. Earth, Wind, & Fire kept the audience focused on the stage as vibrant lighting and moving in a circular pattern kept eyes focused front and center.  

Of course, even without the light show, it was hard to keep one’s eyes off of Verdine White on bass. Even without the white sequined jumpsuit, he was a spark plug on stage. While everyone in the band was relatively reserved in his role on stage, White was the audience’s conduit for excitement. He bounced, danced and moved all across the stage, only slowing down occasionally, and kept moving until the band was off stage and out of sight of the audience.

His audience felt the energy of the band and of the stage production.

One of the few bands left from the ‘70s funk explosion, it’s a testament to the band’s resiliency and work ethic that they’re still able to put on this kind of show.  The band members have said that it was never their intention to stay in “the game,” as they refer to it, this long.

One has to assume that one of the main reasons for the band’s longevity is the humility of its members.

At this point in their careers, they expressed that they genuinely feel honored to be thought in the kind of context that would lead to a show like this. That kind of sincere humbleness was apparent from the moment they took the stage and it fed into their youthful stage energy.

Duke Ellington Students

Duke Ellington Students

Duke Ellington School of Music

As much as the Kennedy Center audience appeared to enjoy and feed off of Earth, Wind, & Fire’s stage presence, the students of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts are the ones to benefit from this concert.

Earth, Wind, & Fire’s appearance at the Kennedy Center was organized and hosted by the Duke Ellington School as part of their Legend Series.

This is the fourth event in the series, all of which have been held at the Kennedy Center. Previous acts to perform have been comedian Dave Chappelle, an alum of the school, musical icon Stevie Wonder, and opera star Denyce Graves.

These artists all appeared  in support of the Duke Ellington School, and Earth, Wind, & Fire weren’t the only ones adding to the entertainment on the night.

During the intermissio the students put on an excellent performance. The stage was filled with a band and dancers, all from the school’s population.

Earth, Wind, & Fire did stop by the Duke Ellington School to give the students some instruction, specifically for this performance, but as they pointed out from the stage, they didn’t have to instruct them too much.

The students just added to the electric atmosphere of the Kennedy Center.

By the end of the night Earth, Wind, & Fire had performed their most well-known songs in an energetic medley, a feat they accomplished by starting out with a quick tempo, slowing the pace down when neccesary, then throwing the concert into a fast-paced climax. Like all succesful artists the band demonstrated control, not just over their material, but over the crowd itself.

Throughout the evening, all the band’s standards were there: the funk, R&B, jazz fusion, Philip Bailey’s falsetto, and Verdine White’s enthusiastic bass playing. The core of the band might have been playing together for 40 years, but that hasn’t changed their will and love for playing, and it’s hard to imagine much about them changing, as long as that holds true.

To learn more about Duke Ellington School of the Arts and how to contribute to the school, please visit their website.

Read more of Stephen’s work in Riffs at the Washington Times Communities.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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