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Elemental Soul

Earth, Wind & Fire focus on the present

By Bruce Robinson

With a catalogue that includes 16 Top 40 singles, half of which topped the R&B charts, and eight double platinum albums, including two volumes of greatest hits that continue to sell briskly, there is no denying the potent history of Earth, Wind & Fire. But that's not what Verdine White wants to talk about.

"You got to get up to speed, man," he insists, redirecting the conversation to the 35-year-old band's newest recording. Illumination (Sanctuary) debuted at No. 32 on Billboard's album chart when it was released in September, and its lead single, "Show Me the Way," quickly garnered a Grammy nomination for the collaboration between the band and "gospeldelic" producer Raphael Saadiq.

"This record was a lot of fun to do," elaborates White, who has played bass with Earth, Wind & Fire since the group formed. They appear Nov. 2 at the Luther Burbank Center. "There was not a lot of pressure on us, because we didn't have to produce [the sessions]; we could just come in and play."

In addition to Saadiq, the producers featured on various tracks from Illumination--Earth, Wind & Fire's 23rd album--include the hit-making team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, soul crooner Brian McKnight and will.i.am from the currently red-hot Black Eyed Peas. Each, of course, had his own approach, but White says that was the whole point. "We'd come in and do our thing and kinda let them chop it up and put their own spin on it." Altogether, eight different production teams worked on the album's 13 tracks.

The studio guest list was hardly limited to producers. Featured visitors on various tracks include Sleepy Brown, Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child, OutKast's Big Boi, Floetry and McKnight. Even the much-disparaged Kenny G joins in on a cover of OutKast's "The Way You Move," the frothy "bonus track" that closes the disc.

The cross-generational pairings were "the brainchild of Philip Bailey," White explains. Inspired in part by Carlos Santana's Supernatural, Bailey had begun planning a series of partnerships with the current generation of hip-hop and R&B stars for his next solo album. Then, he says in the CD's liner notes, "a light came on in my head, to make this the next Earth, Wind & Fire project."

It didn't take much coaxing, as all of them--and much of the rest of the world--have been grooving on Earth, Wind & Fire for more than a generation. Founded by Verdine's older brother, Maurice White, a Chess Records session drummer, Earth, Wind & Fire began in Chicago in 1971. With a move to L.A and the addition of Bailey on vocals, the band's intensely rhythmic blend of funk, soul, gospel, jazz, dance music and pop came into focus. "Shining Star" burned its way to the top of the charts in 1975 followed by "That's the Way of the World," "Sing a Song," "Getaway," the irresistible "Boogie Wonderland" and the classic soul ballad "After the Love Has Gone." Further crossover success came with their energetic, horn-laced reimagining of the Beatles' "Got to Get You into My Life."

Always a stirring live act, the nine-man band incorporated colorfully cosmic visual trappings and flashy magic feats (designed by Doug Henning and a then-unknown assistant named David Copperfield) into their concert performances and became one of the top draws of the era. The 2002 DVD Live in Rio showcases that version of the band onstage.

After a dozen years, the band called a timeout in 1983. "We took a little break," White recalls. "We weren't sure we were going to keep doing it at the time, but we got the bug again."

Although Maurice performs live with the band infrequently, the veteran ensemble remain a strong concert draw. Their recent tour with Chicago resulted in a double-platinum joint live DVD.

When asked about the thread that runs through Earth, Wind & Fire's remarkable career trajectory, White says, "We still make records and people still come to see us, and our concerts are sold-out, after all these years. That's the thread that any artist wants to have."

Earth, Wind & Fire perform on Wednesday, Nov. 2, at the LBC. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $55$95. 707.546.3600.

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From the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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