Few acts over the past 30 years have cast as long a shadow over popular music as Earth, Wind & Fire. Dozens of self-contained funk groups over that period have admittedly owed a huge debt to the groundbreaking work of EWF. However, no group has had as direct a connection with EWF as the new band, Devoted Spirits, which consists of three long-time Earth, Wind & Fire alums, Sheldon Reynolds (guitar, vocals and production), Larry Dunn (keyboards) and Morris Pleasure (keyboards, bass and trumpet), each of whom had spent over a decade with EWF.
Clearly a trio of very talented musicians, Devoted Spirits signed with Thump Records with plans to ultimately record an album of all new material. However, somewhat surprisingly, the group's first release is a disc of covers of Earth Wind & Fire songs entitled Tribute to Earth Wind and Fire.
My first reaction upon hearing of the release of Tribute was...why? Certainly Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the most celebrated groups of the last 30 years and Maurice White's approach to music and his arrangements were both progressive and extremely influential on a generation of artists. So was an album of EWF covers by three former members really necessary? The answer is no, it was not necessary, but I'll admit to being converted by Devoted Spirits into believing that their approach to Tribute made the idea both interesting and quite enjoyable. Unlike Kool & the Gang's recent Hits Reloaded album, where that band attempted to apply modern styles and guest artists to its past hits, the Devoted Spirits project doesn't try to update the EWF catalog. Instead, it takes an alternate view of history, showing how the songs might have sounded in a less controlled environment, with a more relaxed - sometimes funkier and more electric - approach than EWF originally utilized.
The first point that comes out in listening to Tribute is how well the Earth Wind and Fire catalog holds up, and the collection reminds just how great these compositions were. And while the mostly instrumental Tribute remains relatively true to the original versions of a few songs, such as "That's the Way of the World," it generally takes the music in different directions than the original versions, giving a jazzier, freer aura to "Can't Hide Love" and "Sunday Morning," more raw electricity to "Fantasy" and "Rock That," and even a call-and-response gospel feel to a "Serpentine Fire" interlude. In almost all cases (save the straight to smooth jazz radio "After the Love Is Gone"), the songs here are looser and more relaxed (and largely less pop oriented) than the meticulous EWF productions.
Tribute is certainly not a replacement for anyone's old EWF discs, but it isn't meant to be. It's meant to be a "what if?" album that provides Earth Wind & Fire fans an alternate way of looking at the great music that Maurice White and his group created, and in that respect it works well and makes for very good listening.
by Chris Rizik