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The Return of Funk

Soul Music Festival
Fluent Funkateers: Funk's more sophisticated side is well represented by Earth, Wind & Fire.

Photo by Jeff Katz



Earth, Wind & Fire and Larry Graham resurrect funk at Soul Music Festival

By Nicky Baxter

ALTHOUGH TRUE-SCHOOL funk has been badmouthed over the decades, it has never gone down for the count. For the longest time, hip-hop was funk's only friend, but with the re-emergence of George Clinton and his Mothership Connection, former Sly Stone associate Larry Graham and Earth, Wind & Fire, funk appears set to reclaim its role as the most formidable antidote to the blahs, a constant threat to post-'70s black pop. Graham and Earth, Wind & Fire headline Saturday's Summer Soul Festival at Shoreline.

Admittedly, Earth, Wind & Fire represents funk's sophisticated side. The outfit has always kept one eye on the charts. In fact, drummer, singer, songwriter and producer Maurice White's hyphenated version of the funk, particularly the pop-oriented balladry, has drawn the wrath of purists like Clinton.

It is also true, however, that Earth, Wind & Fire has never forsworn its African roots, funk's power source. Numbers such as "Kalimba," "Africano" and scores of others make that connection manifest. With a horn section whose vocabulary encompasses hard-core R&B, lush pop-soul and Coltrane­style jazz, Earth, Wind & Fire is easily the most fluent of the funkateers.

On record, the group established its reputation by crafting airy ballads such as "Reasons" and "That's the Way of the World," but its concert performances have been something altogether different. Led by a frontline that featured White and songsmith and vocalist Philip Bailey, EW&F's live shows smoked.

With the release of its 22nd album, In the Name of Love (Pyramid), earlier this year, Earth, Wind & Fire steadfastly refuses to succumb to the oldies-act syndrome. "Rock It" retools hip-hop beats to find its own groove. The tune situates itself firmly in the '90s, although the band is not above lifting a page or two from the past.

"Rock It" is anchored by classic Parliament bounce, replete with woofed backgrounds, while Bailey's vocal slithers and lashes out. And, though often overshadowed by brother Maurice's multifaceted genius and Bailey's octave-jumping acrobatics, bassist Verdine White rumbles effectively around guitarist Sheldon Reynolds' chicken-scratch riffs. Strangely, Maurice maintains a relatively low profile, seemingly content to let others sing his songs and bang the drums while he works behind the sound board.

DURING HIS tenure with Sly Stone, Larry Graham altered the perception of bass playing. Before him, the instrument was relegated to beat maintenance; after Graham was done, the electric bass assumed the kind of primacy reserved for lead guitar. Graham invented punk-funk's bottom line; there would be no Rick James, no Red Hot Chili Peppers without his example.

The Texas-born, Oakland-raised musician eventually went on to form Graham Central Station and further expanded the instrument's sonic palette, experimenting with various effects--as if Jimi Hendrix had been resurrected as a bass player.


Sinbad's Soul Musical Festival with Earth Wind & Fire and Larry Graham takes place Saturday (Aug. 30) at 7pm at Shoreline, Mountain View. Tickets are $35/$19.50. (BASS)

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From the Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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