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.

Meadowbrook Marathon – Live, Collective Soul & Blues Traveler

In what could have been billed as a festival (Post-Grunge-Palooza?), three bands that helped shape rock in the 1990s shared the stage at the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion Saturday night.  Live, Collective Soul and Blues Traveler each attracted their own focused contingent of fans, a testament to the decade’s fragmented music landscape.

Few acts reached critical mass back then, but plenty did the kind of respectable business that today’s performers would welcome.  This fact also made the ride home from a sold-out show easier than usual at the end of the night; many fans headed for the parking lots after seeing their favorite perform.

It also gave those who stayed an enjoyable 6-hour musical marathon.  Many spent a large portion of the show milling around in the two lounges adjacent to the stage, each of which afforded excellent views of the stage.

The facility’s design allows fans to be connected to the musical action no matter where they stand.  With each show, Meadowbrook continues to impress, both with its staff and amenities.  The venue is as much a star as the bands on stage.

The afternoon sun still shining brightly, Blues Traveler strolled onstage without introduction.  They set the bar high early with a scorching version of Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” followed by their biggest hit, “Runaround.”  On “Mullin’ It Over,” John Popper’s harmonica playing echoed the Stones’ “Midnight Rambler” during the extended jam, which ended when the band uncorked “But Anyway” – one of the best moments of the night.

They played a few selections from the upcoming “North Hollywood Shootout,” including “What Remains,” a loping rocker featuring rich organ swirls and passionate vocals from Popper.  Opening act Hana Pestle then joined the band for Steve Miller’s “The Joker.”

The crowd rose to their feet immediately for Collective Soul’s well-received set. The band went from a whisper to a scream on songs like “December” and “Shine,” while 45-year old lead singer Ed Roland ranged across both ends of the stage like a man half his age.  During “Better Now,” Roland hauled ten women (and one over-energized man) onto the eight-foot tall stage to dance, much to the consternation of the security team.  Later, he invited John Popper out to join them for “Hollywood.”

While headliner Live played several familiar songs (“Selling The Drama,” “The Dolphin’s Cry,” “They Stood Up For Love”), their set also featured some nuggets.  They did “Black and White World,” from their first album, and a reworked version of the Johnny Cash song, “I Walk the Line.”  The latter caused a kerfuffle when Daughtry tried to pass off the arrangement as his own on “American Idol” (they’ve since made nice).

There were a few overly earnest moments.  Lead singer Ed Kowalczyk spent too much time introducing “Turn My Head” as a giant hit record he used for his wedding ceremony (did he hire a band to play it?), but Live’s 90 minutes of family-friendly rock was for the most part easily digested.

Though with a relatively equal amount of platinum records (each band has four – Live’s “Throwing Copper” is the biggest seller of all), Collective Soul could have topped the bill – or Blues Traveler, for that matter.