1990 proved to be a landmark year for Earth, Wind, and Fire. First, they released Heritage, an attempt to merge their traditional R&B sound with more contemporary hip-hop influences. Then they underwent a tour supporting the album, but it proved to be a more significant event for a different reason: it marked the final tour where leader/founder Maurice White performed with the group. A diagnosis of Parkinson's forced White to retire from the stage, although he continues to produce other artists as well as his legendary band. This final tour with White is documented by Live in Japan, a remastered CD/DVD release that showcases EWF at their usual best.
Proving that the EWF sound translates through all cultures, the band repeatedly brings the Japanese audience to their feet as they perform classics as well as a few more obscure tunes. Judging by their high-energy performance, the band seems determined to engage the audience as much as possible. They double the tempo of “September,” “Getaway,”and “Let's Groove,” and include a blazing electric guitar solos to “Shining Star” and “That's the Way of the World.”
Clearly the band decided to include some lesser-known tracks in addition to the big hits. Interestingly, they begin the show with “System of Survival,” a song off their 1987 album Touch the World (best known for the hit “Thinking of You”). The lone nod to Heritage, “For the Love of You” (not the Isley Brothers slow jam) is enlivened by the fierce horn section as well as the sublime interplay between White's vocals and Philip Bailey's falsetto. While the 1981 album Raise! remains notable mainly for the huge hit “Let's Groove,” EWF instead selects “Kalimba Tree,” an exotic workout featuring White playing the kalimba, an African thumb-piano. He also has great fun with the audience, encouraging them to sing along — and hold some lengthy notes!
Unfortunately EWF bows to then-current trends, adding a superfluous rap “For the Love of You” and even the classic “Reasons.” More synthesizers and electronic drums are present here than in other EWF releases, although the sound still dominated much of the 80s and early 90s music scene. But when EWF launches into “Fantasy,” my favorite live track, the horns, vocals, percussion, and overall funk come together to demonstrate their superior musicianship and various musical influences. Judging from the crowd's cheers, they appreciate this experience as well.
While the beautifully shot DVD features EWF's usual enthusiastic performance, it is a true joy to see White strutting back and forth while singing “September” or grinning broadly while dancing with brother Verdine White, crooning “Let's Groove.”
Since other Earth, Wind, & Fire live CDs and DVDs exist, is Live in Japan a worthy addition to a music collection? For EWF fans, the DVD/CD set is a must if only to see Maurice White perform with the group one more time. Casual fans may not be familiar with every track, but will enjoy EWF's energy, impressive musicianship, and pure infectious joy.