Earth, Wind & Fire's latest album paved way for tour extravaganzas

Everybody thought Earth, Wind & Fire was gone forever when the group split up in 1983. But the glittering funk-pop band that won six Grammys, sold close to 40 million records, and dominated the charts in the '70s with its smooth harmonies, messages of brotherhood, and spectacular, glitzy live shows, is back with a new album and a national tour. ``Touch the World,'' released in November, is the group's first album in four years. Happily, it's not a grand departure from their earlier work, except for a little modernization and an added synthesizer track here and there. The same close harmonies, the great combination of Maurice White's warm baritone and Philip Bailey's spectacular falsetto, the snappy horn arrangements, are all there.

White, who was the sole leader of the group in the past, has moved toward a more democratic approach with the band, and the change was evident in their recent appearance here at Radio City Music Hall. He often took a back seat, playing percussion, or just singing backup, while the spotlight was on someone else - usually Bailey.

But in practically every other way, the show was like the old days: a veritable explosion of sound and color. The set for this tour was a visual spectacle that took a crew of 60 men 45,000 hours to put together and cost over $1 million to produce. Colorful planets descended over a star-studded backdrop and opened up to reveal the musicians (White emerged from the center of Earth) garbed in futuristic, glittery costumes. Men in little space capsules, armed with colored spotlights, hung high in the air, and hexagonal banks of multicolored lights fanned across the backdrop.

Initially it was all a bit too much, and the music seemed to get lost in the sensory overload. But soon enough, things relaxed a bit, and the theatrics took a back seat to the music. Later on, the mood shifted from futuristic fantasy to present reality as a set of a city tenement dropped to the stage, and White launched into the 1979 Grammy-winning hit ``After the Love Is Gone.''

The 2-hour concert was a joyful romp through the group's old hits (``Shining Star,'' ``Let's Groove,'' ``That's the Way of the World,'' etc.) and, of course, songs from their new album, including the hit single ``System of Survival.'' The six regular members of the band were augmented by a number of other musicians, including a horn section and young guitarist Dick Smith, who distinguished himself with several impressive solos.

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