Critic's Choice

Earth, Wind and Fire was paradoxical -- couching positive messages inside grooves wicked enough to make your loins ignore any moralistic input -- long before Prince (a.k.a. The Symbol Guy) ever put his Dirty Mind to work. That has always been the great thing about Earth, Wind and Fire: listening to them, you could fill your head with uplifting rhetoric while more primal stirrings rumbled a bit farther south.

Like the elements themselves, Earth, Wind and Fire is not subject to the passage of time. The band continues to be, despite changing trends, impatient labels and a poorly conceived movie based on a Beatles album. This summer, Earth, Wind and Fire, minus founder and leader Maurice White, is back on the road for a tour. It's doing so without a record company's backing -- or even a record company. In the euphemism-laden speak of the image-conscious music industry, Earth, Wind and Fire is ''considering its options'' with new labels. Warner Bros. and the band split company after 1993's Millennium, the last CD Earth, Wind and Fire released.

But unlike many other bands, which need ungodly amounts of radio airplay and label hype to stage a tour, Earth, Wind and Fire can rely on its history and its live performance reputation to draw a crowd. The last time I saw the band in 1988, it was still doing a wonderfully cheesy intro in which giant, hollow spheres floated to the stage and -- voila! -- a band member suddenly emerged from inside. It was Doug Henning meets the Apollo.

Advance word is that Earth, Wind and Fire has an equally cheesy intro planned for this tour. I won't ruin the surprise, but it has to do with a scrim and an elaborately staged presentation involving each of the band's elements. Perhaps the Houston Fire Department should be alerted.

Of course, if Earth, Wind and Fire was only about special effects, the band would have lasted about as long as any heavy metal act that plays three power chords and inflates glow-in-the-dark monsters for a few years and then fades into obscurity. Earth, Wind and Fire, however, can actually play. Even without the tour-weary White, the band can rely on the talents of Philip Bailey (he of the angelic falsetto) and other longtime members Ralph Johnson (the groovemaster at the kit) and Verdine White (Maurice's brother).

There is something quaintly retro and yet timeless about Earth, Wind and Fire. If you listen to their hits today -- tunes such as "Shining Star," and the egregious "Boogie Wonderland" -- they sound woefully dated. But like a Hula Hoop, there's something inherently fun about picking them back up after all those years. You start playing with them, you start re-immersing yourself into those familiar grooves and, yes, you start jump-starting the nostalgic memories. Before you know it, it's the '70s inside your head all over again. I can think of worse places to be.

The band's handlers are working extra hard to put the right spin on Maurice White's non-existence for the tour. They say he's overseeing the tour from a distance, that he's in constant touch with his brother, ensuring the quality of the production. But all the PR doctoring is unnecessary; even if Maurice were orbiting Earth in Mir, cut off from all human communication, Earth, Wind and Fire would still be his band. It's his vision, his production values, his philosophy. Maurice has entrusted his tunes to those close to him, longtime friends and players who know how to treat his music with love and care ... and lots of funk.

By the way, if you're wondering whether or not Earth, Wind and Fire will sign to the new record label, Kalimba, that Maurice White has founded, don't count on it. Kalimba (it's the name of an African thumb piano that Maurice introduced to Earth, Wind and Fire's music years ago) is being distributed by Verve/Forecast, the mostly jazz-oriented label. Earth, Wind and Fire doesn't exactly fit that mold. But fret not. Former Earth, Wind and Fire musical director, keyboardist Freddie Ravel, is signed to Kalimba. His contemporary jazz album is due out soon.

In the meantime, you can grab your platform shoes, your silk shirts and polyester slacks and re-enter the Boogie Wonderland for one more night.

-- Tim Carman

Earth, Wind and Fire plays at 8 p.m. Friday, July 21 at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion at The Woodlands. Tickets are $10 to $40. For info, call 629-3700.

Bruce and Sandra Dudley -- If you've never heard the Dudleys perform, you better do it now. This is their last gig before they move to Nashville, where Sandra has accepted a plum position as assistant professor of commercial voice at Belmont University. This is a hard blow to the local jazz scene. Sandra has a voice to please the gods, an instrument so spine-tinglingly pure in many different ranges and yet bluesy enough to give it all an earthy, emotional quality. Bruce is a first-rate pianist, a guy who has distilled his many influences into a singular and unpredictable style. Together, these two make music the way you would expect a husband and wife team to. They know each other's moves better than Hakeem and Clyde. Although the Dudleys are saying good-bye to Houston, I suspect this won't be the last we'll hear from them. They have dreams yet to pursue in Music City, none of which have to do with country. If anyone can pull off a jazz coup in the heart of Country Music, U.S.A., it's Bruce and Sandra Dudley. At Cezanne, 4100 Montrose, Saturday, July 22. 522-9621. (Tim Carman)

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Tim Carman