Earth, Wind & Fire and Breakwater: A Tale of Two Funk Shows in Two Different Cities
Last week when I interviewed Earth, Wind & Fire bassist extraordinaire Verdine White, I referred to the band's amazing performance on PBS' Soul! show in 1973 as "what it must've been like to see" them in a club. Verdine didn't exactly deny that, so I looked for a modern-day funky analog to contrast with last night's sold-out EW&F show at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood.
I found it in Philadelphia last weekend at Warmdaddy's -- a throwback 200-seat dinner theater that caters to the R&B lovers of the City of Brotherly Love. Jammed to the gills with tables and thus devoid of a dance floor, Warmdaddy's is like a mini Studio 183, Carol City's long-departed funk palace. And like Studio 183, which had a penchant for booking top funk acts, Warmdaddy's landed a major coup last weekend, booking the recently re-formed funk-soul act Breakwater.
Arista Records released two Breakwater LPs, 1978's Breakwater and the 1980 funk masterpiece Splashdown. The latter featured several hot tracks that were worn out by Miami's infamous Ghetto Style DJs crew in the '80s, most notably "Release the Beast," which Daft Punk sampled and made into its 2005 dance-floor smash "Robot Rock."
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I rolled up to Warmdaddy's parking lot via cab at 7:35 p.m. last Friday, for the first of the act's four sold-out shows. "Oh man!" my buddy Pete exclaimed. "We better hurry -- they're playing 'Release the Beast!'" We hustled into Warmdaddy's cramped bar section, where we found South Florida ex-pat Larry Raichelson, who manages the band. Raichelson exchanged a few words with the club manager that got us right in front of center stage at the best table in the house.
We looked up and saw that we were not the only ones who were cramped. All 11 members of Breakwater, who rock a four-piece horn section, were jammed into a narrow landing-strip stage that was built for five musicians. Somehow, through feng shui and Vaseline, they managed to fit everyone up there in three rows tight enough to make a human centipede.
When musicians are that close to one another, it either creates sparks of irritation or musical energy. The latter was in full force as lead singer Gene Robinson and bassist/vocalist Steve Green stood on the front line side by side and dropped nearly two hours of amazing R&B, effortlessly switching between sweet, harmonized Philly soul and boombastic, horn-heavy funk -- sometimes in the same tune.
The crowd of funk heads was as enthusiastic as it could be, sans room to dance. When the guitar riff for "Say You Love" -- Breakwater's gorgeous midtempo love song -- dropped, the crowd lifted even further, dancing in their seats and floating on the falsettos crooning, "Love me/Say that you love me."
Fifteen minutes later, Robinson demanded: "What Time Is It?"
"Splash Down Time!" the heads replied. Five minutes of funk deeper than the Marianna Trench later, the show was over to a room of wide smiles and photo ops with Breakwater, who gladly posed with its fans despite having another show in 30 minutes.
Having seen how the multilayered funk is done on a club level, I was fully prepared to see Earth, Wind & Fire in an arena for the first time. Joining me was my 9-year-old daughter, Jade, whom you may recall from my tale of her encounter with Bootsy Collins this past May. Jade loves Earth, Wind & Fire so much, she went to bed to the strains of their megahit "September" every night for six months last year.
"Hurry Up, People!" Jade, who is usually as sweet as pie, grumbled in line at the concession stand. Some joker ahead of us in line used his American Express card to pay for two hotdogs and two beers, and it took too much time. Earth, Wind & Fire took the stage, the crowd was screaming, and the band launched into "Boogie Wonderland." To keep Jade from utilizing her tae kwon do skills to teach this dude a lesson, I disco-danced with her until we secured her popcorn and my beer. (Use cash at music venues, folks. It's amazing how much faster you can spend it!) And then we boogied down the aisle to our seats. EW&F rained hits at the beginning, dropping "Sing a Song" second and then, before I could get a sip of my beer, "Shining Star," a song I sang to Jade since she was 5, was on and we were up and dancing.
Earth, Wind & Fire, in the post Maurice White-era, have a three-ringed-circus approach. Taking center stage were the three OG members: singer Phillip Bailey, percussionist and vocalist Ralph Johnson, and aforementioned bassist Verdine White. Orbiting around them are Phillip Bailey's son, Phillip Bailey Jr.; and David Wentworth -- who also sing and play percussion and serve as hype men. The EW&F horns: Saxman Gary Bias (who cowrote Anita Baker's smooth jazz hit "Sweet Love"), trombonist Reggie Young, and trumpeter Bobby Burns commanded their own platform in the middle of the stage, with Bias -- who has spent 27 years with EW&F -- taking several solos.
The meat of the band, keyboardist/musical director Myron Mckinley and drummer John Paris, were on opposite sides of the stage on platforms far away from the action. Guitarist Morris O'Connor kind of ran musical messages between the two of them and the stars of the show up front. At times, the different folks running among the four percussion/vocalist stations got distracting, but the music sounded great -- especially on "Evil," the night's lone nod to their early career. So that balanced it out.
When the Hard Rock's Jumbotron screened video of EW&F founder Maurice White duetting with the band he created and left 20-plus years ago, when he contracted Parkinson's, the music almost sounded too good. It is very difficult to wrangle archival footage in an arena setting and then have an 11-piece band play to it, in time, in key, and not miss a note. As EW&F used to roll with magician Doug Henning in the '70s, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. But the idea of EW&F using backing tracks à la Brittany Spears, when they clearly do not need to, bugged me the rest of the performance.
Sure, there were more retired secretaries in the sold-out arena than old-school funkateers like me. Sure, Earth, Wind & Fire have headlined arenas with their funk pop since I was in grade school. Sure, when you have a choreographed musical performance, a few backing tapes here and there are par for the course.
But faking the funk is a musical crime, especially when there are 11 monster musicians onstage who are perfectly capable of nailing the one with a sledgehammer. As Bootsy Collins would say: "Don't fake the funk, Baba!"
When EW&F settled into their ballad section with a stained-glass window on the green screen setting the stage for their smash "Devotion," the ladies in the crowd lost their damned minds. Jade, not having hormones yet, started nodding off in her chair. By the time Phillip Bailey hit every last falsetto note in "After the Love Is Gone," every female was eating out of his hand, save for Jade -- who along with me was wondering when the tempo was going to get moving again.
EW&F responded with the Beatles cover "Got to Get You Into My Life," which put a little pep in her step. Then, like a Sugar Ray Leonard fight, they closed with a one-two combination of their megahits "September" and "Let's Groove" with a brief Ali Shuffle of "Dance Floor" between them.
Jade busted a move to "September" and got some admiring looks from our seat mates. "Is that your daughter? Nine years old and at Earth, Wind & Fire on a Wednesday? You're doing a good job there, Dad."
"Boogie On Down!" Phillip Bailey Sr. and Jr. both commanded. After a lengthy goodbye, EW&F walked off to a huge roar. When it came Verdine White's turn to walk off, he unstrapped his bass, handed it to his tech, and his "Let's Groove" bass line kept pumping, albeit at a lower volume. Ugh.
Was Verdine faking the funk? That man plays circles around 99.9 percent of the living players of his instrument and most of the zombies too. If anyone has earned the right to dance around in silver bell-bottoms and have a guiding track to play to/take his place if he gets winded from dancing, it's him.
But next time, Verdine, how about a little "Mighty, Mighty" to close the show. Because "In the Stone" does not measure up as an encore. You want us to "Boogie On Down" out of the venue? You gotta go harder than Viagra. Your fans in Century Village need all the help they can get.
"Sing a Song"
"Let Your Feelings Show"
"Saturday Nite"/"On Your Face"
"Head To The Sky"/"Devotion"
"That's the Way of the World"
"After the Love Has Gone"
"Reasons / What the World Needs Now"
"Got to Get You into My Life"
In the Stone" (Encore)
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