Talk to the guys in Chicago and they’ll say they’re only getting started.
Bold words for a band 45 years into its career. But the boys backed ‘em up (again) last night with another memorable concert at the Hard Rock in Northfield, Ohio.
Then again, this is Chicago, whose run of chart hits in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s solidified their status as a musical institution for the ages. The critically underrated but commercially unstoppable Chicago, preeminent rock band-cum-horn section, the best-selling American act (second only to The Beach Boys) whose trophy room boasts a whopping 25 platinum albums, 11 number one singles, and a mantle’s worth of Grammy and American Music Awards.
Even when floodtide of Billboard smashes trickled out in the new millennium, Chicago remained annual concert crowd-pleasers at arenas and outdoor sheds. And they continued cranking out new albums today, amidst a smorgasbord of holiday-themed discs, remastered releases, and best-of compilations.
Their latest, Chicago XXXVI: Now, arrived last summer.
So how does a band survive for nearly half a century and still expect great things in the future?
Mostly, it comes down to the love of music—and performance.
It hasn’t necessarily been an easy run for the Windy City ensemble, but none of its nine members dwell on the endurance factor. Rather, they focus on writing and playing the music they love (just as they’ve done since 1967), taking things one gig at a time, album by roman-numbered album. They’ve had as much as attrition in the ranks as any other long-running unit, but an influx of fresh blood every five years or so recharges their passion, and assures the band’s posterity.
Chicago’s core lineup hasn’t changed since the Nixon administration: Singer / songwriter Robert Lamm is still on keyboards, and the horn section of James Pankow (trombone), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), and Walter Parazaider (sax, reeds) is intact. Bassist Jason Scheff—who famously replaced Peter Cetera in 1985—has been in the fold almost twice as long as his predecessor tenor. Tris Imboden (Kenny Loggins, CSN) has been on drums since the early ‘90s, and guitarist Keith Howland has a couple decades under his belt, too.
The “newcomers” are Lou Pardini (Santana, Stevie Wonder)—who assumed the soulful vocals and keyboard parts previously assigned to Bill Champlin—and Walfredo Reyes, Jr. (Lindsey Buckingham) on percussion.
Ray Herrmann (Brian Setzer, Whitney Houston) pinched hit for Parazaider on sax, reeds, and flute.
That’s the Chicago lineup that appeared in Northfield, Ohio in May 2014 (one of our favorite shows of that year), and that’s the lineup (Herrmann, too) that returned to the same stage Wednesday for another go-round.
The boys are currently on (another) joint tour with their friends in Earth, Wind & Fire—but this ticket was an evening with Chicago exclusively; Phil Bailey and his “Boogie Wonderland” brethren just headlined the Hard Rock in June.
“It’s been another busy summer,” mused Pankow. “But we couldn’t go by Cleveland without saying hello!”
Jan Wenner’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction committee snubs the perennial hit-makers every April, but faithful fans still flock to Chicago’s shows to say “hello” back to Pankow and his pals. They recognize the band’s brilliance, they value the eclectic mix of soul, jazz, rock, and honeysweet pop, and they appreciate the Sisyphusian legacy still being carved by its virtuoso members.
For most in last night’s near-capacity crowd, Chicago’s always been part of the soundtrack of their lives.
That certainly goes for us: Lamm’s lads were wood-shedding their material (as The Big Thing) long before we came into this world. And we’ve got a head of silver hair.
The elder statesmen of soul-pop offered all the favorites (the ones common to its several hits compilations, anyway), which made the August 19th performance a nostalgia-steeped affair set to familiar measures and fuzzy, feel-good refrains.
But that’s not to say the show was a sleeper. On the contrary, most of Chicago’s set was boisterous and funky—an upbeat ‘70s and ‘80s marathon of high-energy moments that kept the audience singing and dancing along. Sure, the requisite saccharine AC ballads were on the docket (like Chicago 16’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and Chicago 17’s “Hard Habit to Break”), but each was cleverly sequenced as a solo spot or welcome cool-down, like little calms before the band’s kinetic storms. There’s really no overstating the appeal of the group’s close-knit vocal harmonies, majestic horns, and pure songwriting panache.
Kicking off with Chicago Transit Authority manifesto “Introduction” and “Questions 67 & 68,” the group established a brisk pace that rolled seamlessly into 1972’s “Dialogue” (from Chicago V—the LP with the wood-carved logo on the album jacket). Scheff fielded lead vocals on the easygoing “If You Leave Me Now” (from Chicago X, the chocolate bar album) and the exuberant, up-tempo “Alive Again” (a Hot Streets entry written in homage to late guitarist Terry Kath, who died in 1978).
All the fellas looked dapper as per usual (hey, they’re professionals), but Howland ditched his sport coat early on for maximum comfort (and cool) when soloing on a salmon pink Fender Stratocaster and (later) jade Tom Anderson model guitar. He strummed a 12-string acoustic for “Leave Me Now,” and his unplugged Flamenco-style guitar solo complimented the grey-suited Loughnane’s French horn solo quite nicely.
Lamm took over for his own “Wake Up Sunshine,” which featured more fancy finger work from Howland, an upper-range backup vocal by Scheff, and a fun trumpet solo by Pankow. “Call On Me” (from Chicago VIII, with the red cardinal cover sleeve) went to Pardini, and saw a lot of percussion finesse by Reyes (in a nifty Marvel superheroes T-shirt), who palm-smacked a pair of congas. Reyes used orchestral mallets to make his cymbals sing on “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” (from Chicago VII, the leather cut album) and—along with Imboden—laid some rumba rhythms on the instrumental “Mongonucleosis” as Pankow, Loughnane, and Herrmann blared the Latino-flavored leitmotifs (and horn solos).
A stripped-down semi-acoustic medley allowed some of the players to break out while smaller units performed: Scheff accompanied himself on piano for “Will You Still Love Me;” Lamm used the same piano for the samba-like “Another Rainy Day in New York City” (with another Pankow solo); and Pardini rendered Chicago 19’s “Look Away” as a solo ballad (at least until the last refrain, when the others returned to the stage.
Up next was Pankow’s masterful “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” (from Chicago II), whose several movements let the band’s principal singers go round-robin, and its horn players (and lone guitarist) indulge in some dynamic interplay. Pardini handled vocals on “Make Me Smile,” then deferred to Lamm for the loping “So Much to Say” segment. Loughnane and Herrmann blessed “Anxiety’s Moment” and “West Virginia Fantasies” with jazzy trumpet and airy flute excursions. Loughnane sounds better every time he sings “Colour My World” (originally sung on record by Kath). Then the entire troupe synched up again on “To Be Free” and the “Now More Than Ever” reprise.
The guitar-laden “Old Days” focused on Howland, while “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” let Lamm shine once more. Scheff and Pardini expertly recreated the Cetera / Champlin vocal matchup from the Diane Warren smash “Hard Habit to Break.” Returning to 1969, Lamm and Howland jangled their 12-strings on the uplifting “Beginnings.”
The guys funked it up for Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” which quite literally rolled into a jaw-dropping (and amusing) drum duel / duet by Imboden and Reyes, who mimicked one another’s rolls, flams, and cymbal strikes as the crowd clapped along. The thunderous showcase segued into the disco-laced “Street Player” (from 1979’s Chicago 13, with the skyscraper cover), which nudged any leftover squatters from their seats into full-on dance mode.
Scheff delivered a moving “Just You ‘n’ Me,” which featured a clarinet run by Herrmann and some triangle ornamentation by Reyes. “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” arrived with its turbo-charged tack-on ending (“Getaway”), and “Saturday In the Park” found Lamm singing and pounding out the mirthful chords on his Yamaha Motif ES-8.
We’re sure the crowd could’ve left sated after celebratory finale “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” but Chicago obliged the audience with an encore that packed Chicago III’s “Free” alongside Chicago II’s trippy “25 or 6 to 4.”
And you can bet nobody was “sitting cross-legged on the floor” for that rockin’ send-off. Not even some of the Rocksino staff, who couldn’t resist grooving along.
You know a band brought their a-game when the typically ambivalent (or even nonplussed) venue employees can’t help but swivel their hips with the patrons, as everyone did to Pankow’s patented “South Dakota flips.”
Forty-five years on, Chicago still has it.
And it’s high time the Rock Hall had them.