After winning 20 Grammy Awards, selling a collective 200 million records, and performing for nearly 50 years in their respective bands, you'd think the members of Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago would be ready to buy some hammocks, set up with some strong drinks, and sail into retirement. But after the conclusion of last year's Heart and Soul tour, the respective funk-fusion legends and self-described "rock 'n' roll band with horns" scheduled 15 additional dates for Heart and Soul 2.0, arriving at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre this Friday.
"If you had told me that I was gonna join this group and still be here 45 years later, I would have said 'Really?'?" remarks Ralph Johnson, percussionist and vocalist for Earth, Wind & Fire. "But that's how it's turned out, and Maurice [White, the band's founder] has left behind a tremendous legacy that changed the world with music, changed the way people approach music, the way they're recording it, the sounds they were getting. So it's a tremendous feeling."
Since the '70s powerhouses are known for their astounding and diverse horn sections drawing from rock, jazz, and soul influences, it'd seem their touring partnership would have taken off easily. But it took about four years before Chicago's manager, Peter Schivarelli, was finally able to convince promoters of the union in 2005.
The two bands open and close each show together, playing approximately 20-minute segments. With a total of 21 people onstage, Chicago trumpeter Lee Loughnane says they've made an arrangement that ensures nobody gets in anyone else's way. "Everybody's screaming, 'My God, they're all playing together!'?'' he laughs. "Even though it's been four times, people are amazed that it's still happening."
After the fired-up intro, Chicago leaves the stage and Earth, Wind & Fire performs for one hour, followed by a one-hour Chicago set and the final jam. For megabands performing in such a short span of time, you can expect they won't be playing any obscure tracks; they know fans come out for the hits.
"Musically, it's tremendous, the video and graphic content is excellent, and so it's really quite a production," says Ralph Johnson, percussionist and vocalist for Earth, Wind & Fire. "There are fans of all ages because people that grew up with us that love us so much and appreciate the music and the quality of the music, they want to expose it to their grandkids. So we like to say we get everybody from eight-tracks to iPods."
This year, the legendary bands have plenty more to celebrate apart from their upcoming anniversaries: Earth, Wind & Fire received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in January, and Chicago will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 8, after 22 years of eligibility.
"We didn't know how exciting it would be because we started thinking it might not happen, so it's very cool," Loughnane says. "We've been talking to the director of the show and Paul Shaffer, the [induction ceremony's] musical director, so we can put music together and have a good time once we get there."
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Even though Earth, Wind & Fire has had a rich R&B-filled history and Chicago consists of more jazz-rock, Johnson and Loughnane feel their sounds complement each other onstage. "They play many different styles of music, and because our music has resonated with so many different genres, the two bands getting together creates an excitement that most fans haven't seen before," Loughnane says.
"You've got two great horn bands with a string of hits, and you've got two bands that appeal to both whites and blacks," Johnson says. "And all of it — Chicago's music, Earth Wind's music — it's feel-good music. And we have a natural love and respect and a camaraderie that's just unstoppable."
Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago
With Chicago. 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 25, at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $18.95 to $118 plus fees via ticketmaster.com. Call 561-795-8883.