By Lana K. Wilson-Combs
Special to The Examiner

    Verdine White can rattle off the name of every Earth Wind & Fire song, the year it came out and even how it charted -- all in a matter of seconds. But ask him what his favorite song is, and the information doesn't flow as quickly.

    "Now, that's tough," White, one of the band's original members, says with a laugh during a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "I just can't go there. I'll leave that for the fans to have fun with."

    With a musical catalog as diverse and voluminous as Earth Wind & Fire's, choosing a favorite would be a formidable task for even the staunchest EWF fan. There's "Shining Star," "Reasons," "That's the Way of the World," "Can't Hide Love," "September," "After the Love Is Gone" and "Boogie Wonderland," just to name a few.

    If it's any consolation, White says, the group is playing every one of these hits -- their extended versions -- as well as introducing new material at "The Cool Blue September Tour," which comes to the Shoreline Amphitheatre Friday and the Chronicle Pavilion Sunday. The group shares the bill with Rufus and Chaka Khan.

    "Wherever we traveled, people always wanted to know when we would do a mega concert with a great old-school R&B band," says White. "Well, here it is. We really wanted to do this show with Chaka Khan and Rufus years ago ... and now both groups are getting together."

    But things are a little different these days. EWF no longer uses the elaborate pyrotechnics and magic acts that made the '70s and '80s shows a visual tour de force. And group founder Maurice White (Verdine's brother) no longer tours with the band after being stricken with Parkinson's disease. Maurice was diagnosed eight years ago but kept the ailment under wraps until the traveling became too much for him to handle.

    Nonetheless, the current EWF offering -- featuring original members Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, plus an ensemble of 13 musicians and a trio of singers -- continues to exemplify the band's unique mix of R&B, funk, soul, gospel and rock.

    "We've really always been a group that has defied categorization," says White. "That's part of our mystique and what I think has contributed largely to our success."

    And even though EWF's earliest releases (from 1971's "The Need of Love" to 1974's "Open Our Eyes," the band's commercial breakthrough that spawned the gold single, "Mighty Mighty") changed the face of black music with messages of spiritual unity, White acknowledges that today's music is different.

    "It's definitely harder now to get new music played on the radio," he says. "It seems they are looking for that certain sound. But if you can come with an undeniably powerful record you can break down those stifling barriers. Artists like Jill Scott and Eric Benet have done that. Their music was outside the box. It was so fresh and brilliant that it couldn't be ignored."

    And while fans may love EWF's old stuff, White maintains the group doesn't want to be an oldies act relegated to performing only the early hits.

    "We've got to expand and update our sound without losing our identity," he says, noting that the band's recent collaborations with contemporary soulsters Benet and Wyclef Jean (on a CD due out early next year) will put EWF back atop the charts.

    "We still have a lot to prove musically, not only to our fans but to ourselves," says White, who along with Bailey and Johnson turned 50 this year.

    He adds, "We've enjoyed a phenomenal 30-year run which culminated in us being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. We're not ready just yet to sit back and take it easy. We still know how to rock and roll."