Gig review: Earth, Wind & Fire at First Direct Arena, Leeds

'How many true Earth, Wind and Fire fans do we have in here tonight?' cries Philip Bailey to a cosily-sized audience, hemmed in by black drapes at Leeds's First Direct Arena.
Earth, Wind & FireEarth, Wind & Fire
Earth, Wind & Fire

He receives an answer in the affirmative, if not to the volume he desires. “Y’all a little stiff,” he grins. “You’re gonna need to loosen up!”

Indeed, over a relatively lean 90-minute performance, West Yorkshire does loosen up – though it does take its time to get there.

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Much like their contemporaneous peers Chic, EWF’s party-starting blend of funk, soul and disco occupies a glorious pedestal in modern pop history, a ubiquitous touchstone of the late-seventies R&B crossover boom – and if they have not quite parlayed their success into an emulation of Nile Rodgers’ post-millennial success as both resurgent critical hitmaker and commercial player, then they at the very least remain a potent touring force in the 21st century.

That, in part, could be ascribed to the group’s make-up though; while Rodgers is ostensibly and retrospectively seen as the driving force of Chic, EWF’s creative lynchpin Maurice White is long departed from the line-up, having retired from live shows in 1994 due to Parkinson’s disease and subsequently passed away in 2016.

As such then, they are half-tribute band, half-real deal; only co-lead vocalist Bailey, bassist Verdine White and drummer-turned-percussionist Ralph Johnson – who is treated to a late rendition of Happy Birthday – remain from their heyday, supplanted by an ensemble of slick hired hands.

It is to Bailey and company’s credit though that the spectre of their late bandleader does not hamstring them.

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From the opening horn barrage of Sing a Song and the chicken-scratch guitar of Shining Star, EWF are mostly concerned with bringing the feelgood vibes.

Not everything flies for them – the first half features more MOR virtuoso elongation than bona-fide hits, particularly on Serpentine Fire – but from the moment the frontman unspools the eerie, tribal intro to Kalimba Story, it sustains a grand second-half streak all the way through to super-smoothie ballad After the Love Has Gone.

A closing triumvirate of Boogie Wonderland, Let’s Groove and September borders on the frankly outrageous, finally hauling Leeds to its feet in hip-shaking unison; a final encore of In the Stone is almost redundant by comparison.

Every inch the nostalgic shindig in the end; in full swing, Earth, Wind and Fire are very much elemental.