Earth, Wind & Fire/Michael McDonald @ Meadowbrook

Thursday night’s show at the U.S. Cellular Meadowbrook Pavilion began on a somber note.  Following an a capella rendition of the national anthem by “New Hampshire Idol” winner Anthony Torres, Michael McDonald offered his own 9/11 tribute, a Christmas song called “Peace.”

“With all the ways the world has changed, it seems appropriate now,” he said.

Once that was behind him, a party vibe prevailed, as Earth, Wind & Fire kicked of a fall tour with the former Doobie Brothers front man.  The R&B band stuck to their mid-70’s sweet spot, with multilayered harmonies and funked-up jazz fueling hits like “Fantasy” and “September.”

The 12-member band wasted no time turning up the energy level, opening with three of their biggest hits in rapid succession – “Boogie Wonderland,“ Sing a Song” and “Shining Star.”  Throughout their 90-minute set the focus remained on the players – longtime vocalist Philip Bailey, founding bass player Verdine White (whose dreadlocked dervish antics haven’t lost a step), and the band’s newest member, Kim Johnson, who split lead vocals with Bailey.

Along with a three-man horn section and twin percussionists, the group was in perpetual motion most of the night, flashing Four Tops-like choreographic flourishes and other dance moves.

Eschewing flashy stage props and graphics for a tasteful light show, they reminded the audience that they were one of the most inventive bands of the era, stitching a free form jam onto “Sun Goddess” (one of the evening’s highlights).  On “Serpentine Fire,” White slapped out a rhythm that sounded more like a conga than a bass guitar.

Bailey’s vocal gymnastics helped push aside the fact, with lines like “I’m longing to love you just for a night/the reasons are that we’re here,” “Reasons” is as smarmy as it is pretty.  “September” sparked mass crowd hand waving, while “That’s the Way of the World” provided a perfect, mellow close to the evening.

Michael McDonald’s set drew from his Doobie Brothers catalog, including “Minute By Minute” and a syncopated, loping R&B version of “It Keeps You Running.”  A band of young Nashville players, along with long-time horn man Vince Denham, brought new energy to McDonald hits like “Sweet Freedom,” “I Keep Forgetting” and “Take it To Heart.”

But the focus was on the boomer hits that have given the 55-year old (“I’m a card carrying AARP member”) McDonald’s career a recent shot in the arm – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”

The evergreen music of Motown will always have an audience as long as blue-eyed soul men like McDonald have something to say about it.  But it was a rousing rendition of “Taking it to the Streets,” with Drea Rena sharing vocals, the got the biggest response of the night.  The young Rena brought a lot to the show – she’s definitely a singer to watch.

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