As hard as it might be to believe, especially considering what you hear on the radio these days, there was a time when a transistor radio was all you needed to hear a whole range of interesting music. During the daylight hours it would pick up your local AM radio station which played music from across North America ranging from the latest release by Alice Cooper to the new Barry White single.
At nights, especially on a clear cold night in winter, you could pick up radio signals from as far off as Chicago and Detroit while lying in bed in your house in Ottawa, Canada. You could fall asleep listening to the sounds of Motown, Chicago blues, soul, and classic rhythm and blues (R & B). Of course, those were the days long before the night sky was filled with the senseless chatter of cell phones and broadcast information from countless communication satellites.
It was on one such clear, cold, night around thirty-five years ago that I first heard the high clear voice that I would forever associate with the band Earth, Wind & Fire. I don't know if it was the year that "Shining Star" was a hit, but I'll never forget the first time I ever heard the band that Maurice White founded. There was something close to magical about the sound of those harmonies issuing out of my radio in the dark of the night; like they were a star shining for me in my bedroom.
One of the things that always pissed me off about the Disco era was how bands like Earth, Wind, and Fire seemed to disappear from the radio. Even though their music had to be some of the most danceable I'd ever heard. It somehow didn't seem to satisfy whatever it was the disco bunnies wanted from their music. Maybe it was the fact that Earth, Wind & Fire sang songs that might make you think and feel while disco's sole object seemed to be to render its listeners into unfeeling drones.
While they might not have getting the radio play they deserved, at least up here in Canada, they were one of the biggest draws on the concert circuit with a wonderfully choreographed and elaborate stage show utilizing laser beams and elaborate lights. Having never had the opportunity to see them, I was happy to see that Eagle Rock Entertainment had released a DVD from a concert they had done in 1981, simply called Earth, Wind & Fire In Concert
The concert was recorded at the Oakland Coliseum on December 30th and 31st 1981 for Home Box Office. Eagle Rock has taken those tapes and digitally re-mastered the audio for both Dolby 5.1 and DTS surround sound systems so modern systems can get the most out the music. There's not much that can be done about video quality on these old tapes, but thankfully the original film was in great condition and there's only one or two occasions where the video has a bit of a flaw, and even that is just a little bit of colour streaking probably caused by a light refracting in a camera lens.
As for the concert itself, it's everything I could have hopped for. First of all, the band has been expanded by a four piece horn section. There's now fourteen guys on stage in wonderfully elaborate and colourful costumes, moving and dancing in perfect sync with the music and each other. The show opens with an elaborate display of lights and smoke announcing the arrival of the band, who appear either out of hidden entrances or via hydraulic lifts from under the stage.
Unlike a lot of bands who have used elaborate light shows to hide any deficiencies that they might have musically, once the music starts in earnest, the lights and lasers are put on the back burner and the music takes center stage with Earth, Wind & Fire. The stage was set up as a series of ramps and risers, with the horn section having a home base stage left, drums stage right, and keyboards located just behind the drum kit. Dotted around the front of the stage, where a couple of ramps converged, was the home of the vocalists. Stationed around them were little islands of percussion instruments, where one or other of the vocalists would take a turn when not singing lead.
Meanwhile, the bass player and guitar players were in constant motion; one moment standing far down stage with the vocalist, the next scampering – in perfect time with the music – up and down the ramps on all sides. Amazing as it may sound, in spite of it seeming like all fourteen people being in constant motion, it never became chaotic on stage. The choreography was so tight that nobody was doing anything that didn't fit with what was going on with the music or what was happening around them. It was like a set of interlocking cogs that took their impetus from the central gear that was the singers.
For, in spite of all that surrounded them, the vocalists remain the center of attention, and rightly so. The amazing falsetto work of Philip Bailey, which had sent shivers up my spine thirty-five years ago when I heard him singing "Shining Star", was still as strong as ever. He and Maurice White took the lion's share of the leads, and each of them were charismatic enough to be that cog that powered the rest of the band. They were so good, that I was only mildly disappointed that "Shining Star" was reduced to just being included as part of a medley of hits at the halfway point of the concert.
Aside from that though all the hits were there and the concert ended with a rousing version of "Let's Groove". Earth, Wind & Fire were a wonderful fusion of funk, soul, and R & B, equally at ease creating hip shaking dance music as they were with soul stirring ballads. In an era when plastic dance music predominated, these guys were one of the few bands with real heart and soul. The DVD Earth, Wind & Fire In Concert captures that magic, and is an unique opportunity to experience them during the zenith of their career.