Plugged In And Live – 1996
Review by RJM – Rating:After vanishing from the American pop music scene, Earth, Wind, & Fire suddenly reappeared on VH1’s «Fairway To Heaven IV Concert», recorded live at «The Joint» Hardrock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Philip Bailey had taken over as lead vocal, and Sheldon Reynolds moved into the number two vocal spot. The core of the band, Ralph Johnson, Verdine White and Sonny Emory, was still there, and EWF now included two young female dancers. The major difference was Maurice White noticeably missing. In spite of this, EWF moved ahead.
The third song in the performance was called «Revolution (Just Evolution)». Another new cut, «In The Name Of Love», appeared Later in the show, a. Commercials during the show advertised a somewhat perplexing title, «Greatest Hits Live», indicating EWF didn’t have an entire album of new material.
I purchased «Greatest Hits Live» (released under different titles in Europe and Japan) thinking it to be the Fairway concert, and containing the two new singles. I was surprised it contained neither new cut, but instead offered a much greater gift.
«Greatest Hits Live» was recorded in Tokyo, Japan on one day in April 1995, nearly two years after the issue of Maurice White’s health first surfaced. The continuity of the sounds from the noisy audience and the credits confirmed this was, in fact, one concert. Most astounding was Maurice White performing the lead vocals on most of the tracks! His voice sounded much better, though it didn’t possess the awesome power it once had.
Generally speaking, «Greatest Hits Live» is a medley of big EWF singles. Almost all the tracks have been shortened by removing a verse. Most of the slow jams are noticeably quieter, especially «Can’t Hide Love». I’ll give Maurice credit for working well with what he has, but I can’t rate this work any higher due to lack of new material, and the lead vocal’s no longer superhuman performance.
What you will find here is outstanding instrumentation. «Greatest Hits Live» has a very clean sound considering it was recorded live. Quite often live albums sound flat compared to their studio counterparts. (Makes one wonder just how many takes are necessary for most to get it right in the studio.) This is not the case with «Greatest Hits Live», and confirms EWF’s vast superiority as musicians. One thing is for sure – I wish the audience would have shut the hell up since EWF didn’t have the amps turned way up.
The only new work on «Greatest Hits Live» is the intro of «Sun Goddess». This and «Africano» are redone, with some variations and Sonny Emory’s devastating drum solo on the latter. Incidentally, you should check out an interesting recent remake «Sun Goddess 2000» on the Ramsey Lewis CD «Between The Keys». This version, including an impressive performance by the late Grover Washington Jr. and long-lost lyrics, is truer to the original «Sun Goddess». Unfortunately, none of EWF, past or present, is featured.
«Shining Star» has been cleaned and jazzed up considerably compared to the previous live dud on «Gratitude». «That’s The Way Of The World» is basically the take on the box set «The Eternal Dance» except quieter, with a tasteful Sheldon Reynolds guitar solo added.
New saxist Scott Mayo stretches out a bit in «After The Love Has Gone». «Fantasy» initially sounds a bit forced, possibly because Philip is readying himself for the mind-blowing finale of this song. Likewise, Sonny E’s performance near the end of this cut is awesome. Sonny’s bad-ass; a gifted jazz drummer in a pop group. «Be Ever Wonderful» features Sheldon in his first lead performance.
As for the rest, been there, done that. I acknowledge that the other live album «Gratitude» is a harsh standard of measure of «Greatest Hits Live». Among other factors, the latter was done in one take, whereas Maurice picked and chose the former from various U.S. concerts. But there’s one place «Greatest Hits Live» moves us to the next level.
«Reasons» was conceived in 1974 as an R&B cut, and over the years, has evolved as jazz. The indisputable winner on «Greatest Hits Live» is another spectacular rendition of this standard, now showcasing Scott Mayo on sax. More than 20 years since recording the original, Philip Bailey (born 1951) delivers a five-star performance at an age when many rockers are succumbing to the excesses of their lifestyles. Scotty’s interpretation is no recycling of the late Don Myrick’s «Gratitude» effort. The mood here is incredible.
Noteworthy is that the Fairway take differs substantially from «Greatest Hits Live», thereby yielding yet another version of «Reasons». Nice touch. Incidentally, EWF performed «Reasons» on Sinbad’s HBO Summer Jam 4 in 1998. This take (again, significantly different) features former EWF saxist Gary Bias, and a spontaneous break by Philip into Marvin Gaye’s «Let’s Get It On». Outstanding.
To issue «Greatest Hits Live», EWF joined Ramsey Lewis at Miami-based Pyramid Records, after recording only «Millennium» on Warner. Although the Fairway concert showed Maurice White no longer toured with the band, he and the rest of EWF were far from done. And best of all, two cuts were still out there – a new release was on the horizon.
order of strength:
Recorded live in Japan 20. April
Also released as: