Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire took the stage Sunday night at the Sprint Center armed with enough musicians for a intramural football team and sufficient horns to start a Glenn Miller Orchestra franchise.
The 18-strong band opened with a tag-team of each other’s hits, opening appropriately with “Beginning” followed by “Never” and an extended “We Can Make It Happen.” The bands played like there was a penalty for letting the energy leg, barely pausing to take a breath between numbers.
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With the crowd warmed up, Chicago departed leaving Earth, Wind & Fire to entertain on their own. The soul veterans were more than up to the task. They kicked off their hour-long set with “Boogie Wonderland,” which activated the hidden springs in each seat that forced everyone to their feet.
“Serpentine Fire” and the Latin-influenced “Evil” made sure everyone kept moving until the cascade of slow jams: “That’s the Way of the World,” “After the Love is Gone” and a cover of Chicago’s “Wishing You Were Here.” That number got a smooth jazz make-over that featured original member Philip Bailey’s pillow-soft falsetto.
The spotlights turned on the energetic crowd for a sing-along through “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which found the band working the lip of the stage shaking hands with the crowd. After “Fantasy,” the stage went dark and three huge neon drums were wheeled to center stage. Armed with neon drumsticks and shirts with lights the ad hoc drum corp. created an impressive groove that segued into the set-ending “Let’s Groove.”
Chicago did themselves a favor by scheduling a 20-minute intermission before their set, but they still had a hard time matching EWF’s energy. “Saturday in the Park” got things off to a good start and their cover of “I Can’t Let Go” returned the favor EWF paid with “Wishing You Were Here.”
Unfortunately, the band slipped into soft rock mode after an spirited “Alive Again.” “Look Away” melted into “Hard Habit To Break,” “You’re the Inspiration,” “Just You and Me” and “Hold Me Now.” True, all the songs were hits and drew enthusiastic vocal support from the crowd, but putting them all together killed the pacing and energy.
After coaxing the audience back to their feet, Chicago’s 50-minute set closed with “Stronger Every Day.” Despite just seven original members across the two groups, strong arrangements meant key departed musicians like Maurice White and Peter Cetera weren’t missed. With so much talent onstage, special effects took a back seat – the musicians were more than enough spectacle.
The stage featured a two-tiered riser with a drum kit on each side at the top which made the structure resemble twin pyramids. There was plenty of space out front for the artists to run around. None of them made better use of this space than EWF founding bass player Verdine White, who strutted in fringed bell-bottoms and appeared to be having the time of his life.
The upper deck of the Sprint Center was curtained off, leaving a cozy lower bowl that didn’t have many empty seats. The sound was good. Not clear enough to pick out each specific instrument, but each section was distinct. Drums thumped, guitars sizzled and horns punched.
This was the groups’ third tour together and it’s easy to see why both musicians and audiences keep coming back. While similar outings could turn into a battle of the bands, Chicago and EWF complement each other well. Both are known for soaring vocals and intricate horn lines and really are two sides of the same coin.
The night ended the same way it began, with both bands onstage trading hits. EWF’s “September” led into Chicago’s “Free,” which featured the sax players from both bands sparring over a White bassline that recalled the finer moments of Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins in James Brown’s band.
The bands nailed the night shut with a run on “Sing A Song,” “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is,” “Shining Star” and “25 or 4 to 6” that didn’t leave any other option but to dance. Three hours after taking the stage together, the musicians celebrated each other like a sports team winning the pennant. In a way, they had.