Influential genre-crossing band Earth, Wind & Fire comes to town next week, while this weekend a Lodi farm hosts "Pickin' in the Pasture"
"He wanted a band that could do a bit of everything," Verdine White said of his brother Maurice, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire.
And he got it. Earth, Wind & Fire, which debuted on disc in 1970, has taken elements from R&B, jazz, funk, rock, blues, Latin, dance and gospel music and filtered them through impeccable musicianship, a life-affirming lyrical approach, and high-energy, infectious live shows. It's hard to hear an EWF song — "Shining Star," "September," "Serpentine Fire," their cover of the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" that pretty near outdoes the Fab Four themselves — without dancing, grooving ... or at least smiling. The 10-piece band both exemplified 1970s soul and transcended it.
Maurice White is gone now, having passed in 2016, but the band is carrying on what he started, with younger brother and original member Verdine still among the frontmen on bass, drums and vocals, joined by longtime members Philip Bailey (percussion, kalimba, conga, vocals) and Ralph Johnson (drums, percussion, vocals). The current lineup, according to the EWF website, also includes Myron McKinley (keyboards), Philip Bailey Jr. (background vocals), B. David Whitworth (percussion, vocals), Morris O'Connor and Serg Dimitrijevic (guitar) and John Paris (drums, vocals), with the horn section of Gary Bias (saxophone), Bobby Burns Jr. (trumpet) and Reggie Young (trombone).
That boogie wonderland comes to town next week, when Earth, Wind & Fire perform at Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 8 p.m. (Gates open at 6:30 p.m.) It's the second-to-last show for the CMAC season; Steve Martin and Martin Short perform Aug. 31. (Trivia: EWF and Steve Martin were in the same movie once, the weird Beatles pastiche "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." EWF's "Got to Get You Into My Life" cover and Martin's manic embodiment of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" were arguably the most watchable moments.)
Nearly five decades has meant multiple generations of Earth, Wind & Fire fans, each in turn discovering a band that insists you're a shining star — no matter who you are.
"We have five generations; we have tons of young people, tons of young people who come to our shows — and they have smiles on their faces," says Verdine White.
EWF had its beginnings in Chicago when Maurice White, former Chess Records session drummer who had also played jazz with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, formed a band called The Salty Peppers. After some initial regional success, Maurice moved to Los Angeles and added some more personnel to the band, including younger brother Verdine. (Another brother, Fred, would later be in the band for awhile.) He also came up with the iconic name Earth, Wind & Fire based on the three elements in his astrological chart (he was a Sagittarius). The new band recorded two albums for Warner Brothers, then several for Columbia, including their triple-platinum 1975 release "That's the Way of the World."
That early- to mid-1970s period saw assorted exciting changes and experiments throughout the musical landscape, whether it was Stevie Wonder coming into his own with an arguably unparalled string of classic albums or jazzman Miles Davis incorporating rock, funk and avant-garde influences on his never-ending journey of innovation. A band like EWF that could and did, as White said, "do a bit of everything" was equally new, different and exciting, especially with a lively stage show that grew into a spectacle. (Magician Doug Henning would direct many of their tours, along with his youthful protege David Copperfield.)
"It was part of that era, these different types of artists — and if you'll notice, every one of them sounded different; it was all different types of music," Verdine recalled. "It was really a great musical smorgasbord."
It's a buffet they'll be serving up at CMAC. They may play "After the Love Has Gone," but it never really left.
Tickets in the pavilion range from $36 to $86, with lawn seating for $31 ($26 advance). Tickets: www.cmacevents.com.
This pasture's for pickin'
Year-round, the property at 2515 Covert Road in Lodi, Seneca County, is a working sheep farm. But then there's that one magical weekend each year, when the sound of mandolins, dobros, banjos, guitars, upright basses and close harmony vocals are heard throughout the pasture and homestead.
That would be this weekend, when Andy and Susan Alexander and family host the 21st annual Pickin' in the Pasture bluegrass festival. Focused on traditional bluegrass and old-time string music, the festival boasts a three-day lineup of performers, many nationally renowned, Thursday through Saturday. Taking the stage will be bands famed on the bluegrass circuit — Remington Ryde, The Kody Norris Show, 5 Mile Mountain Road, Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice and many more, and a mix of older and younger performers. Among the acts, a link to bluegrass history and the festival's beginnings: The Clinch Mountain Boys, fronted by Ralph Stanley II — whose father played the first couple years of the fest.
"We focus on traditional bluegrass music — there's a lot of events that go with more progressive, popular types, jam bands, that type of thing," Andy Alexander said. "We decided we had limited resources, we couldn't have something for everyone. The bands that play here are all bluegrass or old-time." A niche genre, true, but one with a following, and with a good deal of diversity within its parameters.
So what makes a family decide, back in the Nineties, to start a bluegrass festival in their upstate New York sheep pasture? Basically, because they could.
"Both my wife and I played in bluegrass bands on the bluegrass circuit, and a lot of people said, 'you've got a place you could have a festival,'" Alexander said. They had made a lot of friends and contacts in the bluegrass world through their own performing — including Ralph Stanley himself, who offered to play the first year, asking only for enough money to pay his band.
"I said, 'I can't afford you!' He said, 'You can afford zero, can't you?'" Alexander recalled. And as it turns out, that was the year Stanley's profile rose in a big way with the release of Ralph Stanley & Friends' "Clinch Mountain Country," an album featuring a who's who of special guests from Ricky Skaggs to Bob Dylan to Patty Loveless — and the new fest in Lodi had him. The first fest was a big success, and the Alexanders put the money into hiring acts for the next year — and so on.
Stanley returned the next year, which also saw the Osborne Brothers take the stage. And many another big bluegrass name has played the festival, such as the Steep Canyon Rangers, who are known for collaborations with Steve Martin.
The music isn't limited to the stage, of course. There are workshops, where pros share musical pointers with all comers. There are musical circles throughout the weekend. Plus, the Alexanders turn the pasture into a campground for the weekend, and many of the audience members bring their own instruments and jam together. Not just the audience: "It's really laid-back — a lot of the performers will go into the campground and jam with people until 4 in the morning," Alexander said. "People invite bands to come to their camp for dinner ... it's just kind of like a big family reunion."
A family reunion that's seen some of the kids — like the Alexanders' son Jesse, less than a year old for the first fest — come into their own. Now the Jesse Alexander Band (with Andy and Susan on banjo and upright bass, respectively) is the host band, playing Thursday and Friday sets. For that matter, Alexander said, "We actually have kids who were conceived in the pasture here — and now they're buying tickets!"
They try to keep those bluegrass babies coming, making sure to book a number of young acts and charging no fee for those under 16, to replenish the pool of bluegrass fans as the giants of the genre (as well as fans) age and pass on. They've been successful, Alexander noted: "The numbers aren't going up — but they're not going down."
Admission at the gate is $80 for the whole weekend, including up to five days of camping. Day tickets are $25 Thursday, $30 Friday and $30 Saturday. (There's also a gospel show and service Sunday morning for those still around.) Bring lawn chairs, blanket and weather-appropriate clothing, plus picnics if you want (though there are food and other vendors set up too). Details, including full lineup: www.pickininthepasture.com.
Music along the canal
Forty-some bands will be playing the canal town this weekend as the Fairport Music Festival returns, with music on multiple indoor and outdoor stages. The acts range from the Celtic punk of 1916 to the rockabilly of Roy Wilson & The Buzzards; from the reggae of Noble Vibes to the modern country of the Joey Allen Band to the new wave of Hall Pass — plus tributes to CCR (Black Rabbit), Chicago (Fairport Canal Authority) and both Guns N' Roses and AC/DC (Appetite for Voltage). That's just a handful of bands playing the fest, which also includes a number of kids' activities and, in something of a festival within a festival, multiple Fairport-area restaurants selling their signature dishes as part of the "Taste of Fairport."
Tickets at the gate are $20 (kids 12 and under free), with proceeds benefiting the Golisano Children's Hospital at Strong. Online tickets are $15. Details, and full lineup of performers and food vendors: www.fairportmusicfestival.com.