Earth Wind and Fire and Chic Bring the Funk Uptown for PPG Paints Arena Concert

Earth Wind & Fire in a 2009 concert. photo: Craig ONeal.

Earth Wind & Fire in a 2009 concert. photo: Craig ONeal and Wikipedia.

Some concert lineups hold the promise of a magical night. Such was the case when I first saw that Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic featuring Nile Rodgers would be playing PPG Paints Arena. These were two of the top funk/soul/dance bands of the late 1970s. I loved both bands, but never saw them live. I was definitely going.

There are similarities between each band. Both EWF and Chic had their respective musical genius at the controls and both bands suffered key losses. The late Maurice White overcame a few early lackluster albums and tinkered with EWF’s sound. He charted EWF’s new groove by drawing from multiple genres, including funk, rock, soul, jazz, and African and Latin rhythms. Chic still has Rodgers as its musical virtuoso. He created and produced top hits not only for Chic but also for many other performers. Co-founder and bass player Bernard Edwards died in 1996. 

A Chic Dance Party

Rodgers, prior to performing with his band, chatted and took pictures with fans in the seats closest to the stage. Both he and the fans enjoyed the interaction. Chic took the stage promptly at 7:30 p.m. Simply set, the stage had a large plain backdrop running across its rear portion and an array of overhead lights.

“Are you ready to party with us tonight?” Rodgers asked the audience. The crowd signaled loudly that they were, and the band launched into “Everybody Dance.” Rodgers was dressed with a white beret covering his long dreads, and wore glasses. As he quickly strummed his white Stratocaster guitar, he was flanked by two beautiful female singers, both elegantly dressed. Also on stage were two keyboard players, a trumpet player, a saxophonist, drummer, and a bass player. Rodgers wore dark pants and a medium-colored sports jacket. The men in the band wore white dress suits with black ties.

After the song, Rodgers noted that Chic’s very first single originally broke on Pittsburgh’s WAMO FM radio station. That crucial early airplay, he said, helped the song get in the rotation at a station in Philadelphia, and the song took off. Rodgers and the band then launched into that song: “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah).” Rodgers exhorted the fans to clap, and they enthusiastically obliged.

Next up was “I Want Your Love,” sung beautifully by Kimberly Davis, who Rodgers mentioned has the no. 1 dance song in the country. The other lead singer, Folami, had some nice vocals on the song as well. All cylinders were firing with great keyboards, bass, drums, horns, and Rodgers’s fast Strat strums. Each member of the band had a moment in the spotlight during the song. It was magical.

One very nice surprise was Chic playing songs that Rodgers wrote or co-wrote for other artists. Featured in the show were Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”

Rodgers spoke of being told several years back that he had terminal cancer and that the doctor told him to go home and get his affairs in order. So he did, and he also entered into one of the most prolific periods of his career, writing many new songs and entering into collaborations with other artists. Rodgers, now cancer free, and Chic played one of those more recent collaborative hits, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

Rodgers asked the crowd “Do you feel like freaking out?” Of course they did, and Rodgers started fast-strumming the opening of “Le Freak” and its well-known refrain of “Ahhhhhh, freak out!” Many in the crowd were up and dancing. Rodgers and bassist Jerry Barnes were jammin’ at center stage flanked by Davis and Folami.

For the last song, they played their monster hit, “Good Times,” which Rodgers said was a no. 1 song for the band in 1979. It is one of the most sampled songs ever and parts were used in The Sugar Hill Gang’s seminal early rap song, “Rapper’s Delight.”

As Chic started to play “Good Times,” about 30 fans emerged from behind the stage and started dancing with the band. Rodgers played some amazing lead guitar riffs on his guitar during the 20-minute extended jam, which also included a sampling of said “Rapper’s Delight.” A nice juxtaposition. Rodgers thanked the audience, and the band exited, their set lasting approximately an hour.

The audience, although mainly baby boomers, consisted of people of all ages and races. Everybody did their thing, whether watching quietly or dancing in their seats or the aisles. One couple was even doing some disco dance moves on the floor section of the arena.

After Chic’s fantastic set ended, I thought, EWF must really be confident to have such a great band open for them. But I also thought EWF would be up to the challenge.

Earth Wind & Fire Delivers Funk and Positivity 

Before EWF took the stage, an animated video played on the large screen detailing the mythical creation of the elements of Earth, Wind & Fire. An animated space ship landed in front of the onscreen pyramids as members of EWF took the stage. Then a phoenix appeared on the screen. The phoenix was also on the drum kit.

Although there were no pyramids on stage, there were three levels of risers. The top level had the three horn players. The drummer and keyboard player were on the second level. Everyone else was at stage level.

Most of the band members wore some type of red jacket, several full-length, almost like a long vestment. Lead singer Philip Bailey’s jacket was adorned with small black geometric shapes. Bassist Verdine White (the late Maurice White’s brother) wore a red glitter jacket and pants with long white tassels running off the outside of the knee on his right leg. White shoes completed his outfit.

Amid the fog and lights, EWF treated the fans to their hit song “Shining Star.” “There’s going to be a party in Pittsburgh tonight!” Bailey shouted to the crowd after the song. The band then launched into “Getaway” from their 1976 album, Spirit, and then into “Serpentine Fire.” Next up was “Sing a Song.” Talk about a wall of sound—on stage was a drummer, slide trombonist, trumpeter, saxophonist, keyboardist, two backup singers, bass guitarist, lead guitarist, and three percussion players. White was a sight to behold plucking his bass and marching all around the stage with a confident strut and a broad smile on his face.

Bailey broke out the kalimba (an African thumb piano) for “Kalimba Story.” The video screen had a kaleidoscope effect for the song. Mid-set highlights included the soulful “Devotion” and “Can’t Hide Love” followed by “That’s the Way of the World.” During the latter, a tribute to the late band leader, Maurice White, played on the screen. The song was the group’s breakout hit in 1975. Bailey’s son, Philip Bailey Jr., did an outstanding job on lead vocals for the song. Morris O’Connor provided strong lead guitar work on his emerald green guitar. The horn section was as smooth as silk, and the percussion provided a steady foundation. The three remaining original members were at center stage after the song: Bailey, Verdine White, and percussionist Ralph Johnson.

After a few minutes of applause and cheering, EWF retook the stage and launched into “Fantasy.” It made for a great encore song with all of the band’s strong features. Their next and last song was “In the Stone,” a great tune with lyrics about the permanence of love albeit not one of their better known numbers.

EWF is an amazingly tight and talented band. In several songs during the show, there were super strong drum and horn  breaks that felt like you were getting hit by a funk photon torpedo. Their positive, slightly mystical lyrics add to their aura. With Earth Wind & Fire and Chic on the same bill, there were many reasons for the evening’s good times.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and loves seeing a great concert.