Earth, Wind & Fire goes on the road this summer with some classic hits, a new touring partner and lingering heartache.
The hits include “September,” “Shining Star” and “Boogie Wonderland,” while they’ll share the stage with the band Chic, featuring Nile Rodgers. The sadness comes from the loss last year of their founder Maurice White.
“We’re still healing,” said drummer Ralph Johnson, one of three original members still playing the band’s infectious hooks. “I think the way we’ve dealt with it has been to do the music.”
Concertgoers can expect a teary memorial to White amid the disco grooves and horn-driven funk. The band has always honored its missing member — White stopped touring in 1995 — but this time the section has a final kiss to it.
“It’s not something you get over. Maurice will always be part of us. We cut our teeth on Earth, Wind and Fire. He was our mentor, our leader, our Elvis, our John Lennon, all in one guy,” said White’s brother, Verdine.
Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic embark on their Live Nation tour July 12 in Oakland, California, and then hits New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston and Washington, D.C., before concluding Aug. 22 in Detroit.
It’s called 2054 The Tour and it looks backward to the heyday of the infamous disco Studio 54 and to a shiny, electronic future. Each venue will be reconfigured to make it easier for the bands to interact with dancing fans.
Each night, after unleashing a top-heavy string of hits, Earth, Wind & Fire get serious during the White tribute. It comes during the song “That’s the Way of the World,” when a video memorial of Maurice White plays. He died at 74 last year after suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Johnson and Verdine White — joined by fellow original member, singer Philip Bailey — said they try to avoid looking at each other during the show’s memorial part for fear that tears will fall. Many fans stop to pull out cellphones and capture the moment.
“Everything is fun, fun, fun, fun. Then we get to that section and that’s when the show gets heart. All we see is just phones,” said White. “It’s heavy. It’s deep. It’s beautiful, though.”
Earth, Wind & Fire was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, played the 2005 Super Bowl halftime show and has six Grammys. The band’s “Got to Get You Into My Life” was on President Barack Obama’s first Spotify playlist.
Each generation seems to rediscover the band, in part because popular culture can’t get enough of its bouncy vibe. Last year, in one November weekend, the band had three songs in the world’s top two movies — “Trolls” and “Doctor Strange.”
“We’re part of peoples’ lives. As they say, `the soundtrack of their lives’ — literally,” said White. “They always want pictures: ‘Can I take this for my dad or my mom?’ ‘Will you sign this for my dad?’ We get that all the time.”
Satellite and classic rock radio keep the band’s hits alive and online services like iTunes, SoundCloud and Shazam have made their work accessible. A band that started on vinyl turns out to be thriving in the digital age.
“They can get to us. They can discover us. And rediscover us and rediscover us and turn a friend on to us,” said White. “So when we’re doing the concert, they’re Googling and they’re buying songs they didn’t even know that existed. So actually I think it’s been a big help.”
Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic hit the road proving that nostalgia acts are still reliable tour sellers. Other bands from the 1970s like Queen, Foreigner, Boston, Aerosmith, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart are also touring this year.
“I think people will always be enamored with bands that can really play — live performance. You can’t beat that,” Johnson said. “There’s something you get from a live performance you can’t get from a record or a CD. The experience is very different.”
How long will they keep at it? Until the boogie wonderland stops.
“Maurice wanted a band that could play all genres of music and a band that would not be standing still onstage. We’re always in motion, there’s always something going on,” said Johnson.
“We’re just carrying on the vision. This is the legacy. The three of us — Verdine, Philip and myself — we’re carrying on for as long, as I tell people, we put butts in the seats.”