Special to The Post Star
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Last year, it was Earth Wind & Fire that nearly stole the show when it opened for perennial SPAC favorites Chicago, and Sunday, Chicago returned for another stellar concert, this time with a new touring partner to test its talents, Huey Lewis & the News.
Like last year, members of each group invaded the set of the other at will, culminating in a spirited percussive workout during Chicago's romp through the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man," when 16 musicians filled the SPAC stage.
Although only three founding members of Chicago remain in the group - singer and keyboard player Roberty Lamm, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and trombonist James Pankow - its lineup has remained remarkably stable, with replacements whose time with the group also spans decades.
Twenty-year veteran Jason Scheff replicated the high-end vocals originally sung by Peter Cetera on "You're the Inspiration" and "If You leave Me Now." Singer-keyboardist Bill Champlin reprised his spirited "Freedom," a 40-year-old hit from his previous band, the Sons of Champlin, that rocked San Francisco's "Summer of Love" in 1967.
Subbing for original saxophonist Walter Parazaider, Larry Klimas commanded center stage with his fleet, inventive soloing.
The original members of Lewis and the News have likewise revamped the band's lineup with killer players, providing a refreshing continuity as the band reprised hit after hit from its glory days two decades ago.
Lewis and company have been absent from the pop charts long enough that they're now less of an oldies act than the world's highest-paid bar band. Skin-tight versions of the Impressions' "It's All Right," J.J. Jackson's "But It's Alright," and Major Lance's "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" peppered their performance, even as their choice of soul classics betrayed the years of this decidely middle-aged combo.
Still, the crowd applauded longest for the band's own hits, especially its 1985 chart-topper, "The Power of Love."
On Monday, it was Earth Wind & Fire's time to shine. Attendance for its show was noticeably smaller than the 10,000 present the night before for Chicago, but those on hand were rewarded with a tour-de-force performance by a legendary ensemble still at the top of its game.
It was an evening of bodacious booty-shaking from early offerings like "Saturday Night" and "Boogie Wonderland" to the exuberant concert closers like "September."
One of the biggest acts of the '70s, EWF also has weathered the departure of all but a trio of core members. Perpetual motion machine Verdine White still snapped his bass strings like they were made of rubber bands. Ralph Johnson performed double duty on backing vocals and percussion. Soaring lead singer Philip Baily enchanted the audience with his falsetto flights. And a bunch of young guns made sure this mix of rock, jazz and soul sounded as fresh today as when foot-high Afros and platform shoes were all the rage.
For those already pining for next year's jazz festival, top-selling trumpeter Chris Botti brought the feel of a lazy afternoon to his opening set for EWF. He attracted a loyal following of his own, enough to ensure that those in the amphitheater were unusually respectful for an opening act.
With his pin-striped suit and thatch of blond hair, Botti resembles a "Young Americans"-era David Bowie, but he delivered his brand of smooth jazz with a reserved demeanor and lush romanticism that recalled the work of past trumpet greats like Chet Baker and Miles Davis.
Botti was backed by a talented ensemble that included pianist Billy Childs, guitarist Mark Whitfield and, for Irving Berlin's haunting "What'll I Do," by guest singer Jean Jolie.
But the spolight rarely drifted from the leader, whether he was exploring familiar standards like "When I Fall in Love" and "My Funny Valentine" or left-field choices like Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep."