As I watched “Chicago in Chicago,” a sold-out concert recorded in 2010 at the Charter One Pavilion in the city where the group formed, I was struck by the fact that the musical group Chicago has had a serious personnel changes over the years, yet, amazingly, still thrives.
Gone are lead vocalist Peter Cetera (who left after album #17 in the ‘80s) and guitarist, band leader and stage presence Terry Kath, who died of an accidental gunshot wound way back in 1978. Could the Rolling Stones have survived the loss of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards?
That was a rhetorical question, but you answered it anyway, same as I did: No way.
But Chicago—one of the longest running and most successful rock groups in history, with over 38 million units sold and 22 gold, 18 platinum, and eight multi-platinum albums to their credit—keeps “feelin’ stronger every day.”
It helps that original band members Robert Lamm (keyboards and some vocals), Jimmy Pankow (trombone), Walter Pazaider (saxophone), and Lee Loughnane (trumpet) have been playing together since the band first formed in the Windy City in 1967, calling themselves The Big Thing before the name change to Chicago Transit Authority (the name of the city’s bus and subway system)—a name that was shortened to Chicago in 1970. But the original group of seven members has seen 21 personnel changes over the years, and because their concerts are mostly oldies—Chicago’s very own, actually—it’s fair to conclude that the secret to the group’s success is the music itself. I mean, what they did in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was phenomenally innovative—blending a horn section with the standard rock group and then playing complex compositions that were often a fusion of jazz, Latin rhythms, pop, rock, classical movements, and big band riffs.
Their first two albums—both double albums—were “Chicago Transit Authority” and “Chicago,” setting the stage for continued innovation to follow. I’d say that they marched to their own drummer, except that drummer Danny Seraphine was let go in 1990—which, amazingly, was 22 years ago. That this group has been actively recording and performing for 45 years, now, boggles the mind. Billboard Magazine named them #13 on their list of Top 100 Artists of All Time, and they’re the first band to ever chart Top 40 albums across five decades. Five of the band’s albums topped the Billboard charts at #1.
So how is this “Chicago in Chicago” concert, which also features The Doobie Brothers jamming with them for three final songs? A little uneven, but still darned impressive. Alas, Pazaider took the day off, but the other three core members lead the rest of the group with their usual professionalism.
Instrumentally, the Chicagoans are as strong as ever. Their playing is crisp, and the improvisations they do feel as natural as the versions we’re familiar with on the albums. It’s the vocals where you notice a slight drop-off. Keith Howland has been the band’s lead guitarist since 1995, and while he’s got a better-than-average voice, he doesn’t sing with the same ease as Cetera, and his range is more limited. When other band members take a turn at lead vocal, harmonize, or riff vocally, they too seem competent enough. But playing those instruments remains their forté. The lone exception is Robert Lamm, who wrote “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Saturday in the Park.” On those numbers, Lamm’s solos sound chillingly like a blast from the past. He nails them, and for a 66-year-old guy, that’s nothing short of amazing.
Their efforts to play to the crowd—the pointing, the clapping, the Bic lighter waves (without the lighter), etc.—all seem a little forced and hokey . . . and, in truth, unnecessary. People come to see them for the music. That’s the connection, not any onstage antics they might do. There are no pyrotechnics, and aside from the band’s logo, the only stage prop is a gigantic American flag that drops down for the three-song finale with The Doobie Brothers, who first toured with Chicago in 2008.
The finale numbers are among the album’s strongest, but there are other standouts. The long introductory medley “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” (“Make Me Smile”; “So Much to Say, So Much to Give”; “Anxiety’s Moment”; West Virginia Fantasies; Colour My World; To Be Free; Now More Than Ever”) shows off the group’s improvisational skills—the effortless way they have of shifting tempos, rhythms, keys, and moods, working their way through different movements the way a classical orchestra might. But you can tell which songs are their favorites, because they seem to come to life. In “Beginnings,” for example, Pankow and Loughnane square off against each other and have one heck of a “conversation. Songs that Lamm sings are also quite strong. But a few of the others are less successful because of cautious vocals—where one gets the sense that the singers are playing it safe, hoping not to crack or hit an off-note.
Still, all is forgotten as the concert picks up speed.
Here’s the song list:
“Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”
“Dialogue, Pt. 1 & 2”
“If You Leave Me Now”
“Call on Me”
“Hard Habit to Break”
“You’re the Inspiration”
“I’m a Man”
“Just You and Me”
“Saturday in the Park”
“Hard to Say I’m Sorry”
“Feelin’ Stronger Everyday”
But the energy really flows when Chicago is joined onstage by The Doobie Brothers for a rousing rendition of “Free,” followed by “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “25 or 6 to 4,” with its free-flowing guitar solos.
Total edited concert run-time is 94 minutes.
Image did a really nice job with this release. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 25GB disc is a good one, despite the decision to go with 1080i. Detail is sharp on deep-focus shots as well as close ups and medium shots, partly because the stage lighting is bright enough to where such clarity is possible. “Chicago in Chicago” is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Color their world true-looking in HD.
The sound is also top-notch. Fans have their choice of a concert hall-style LPCM 2.0 or a more immersive DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio. Either one is very good, but I preferred the default 5.1 just because it filled the room a little better and the brass seemed a little brighter. There are no subtitles.
The main bonus feature is a 41-minute edited interview with Lamm, Pankow and Loughnane talking about the good old days, including the dives they played, the promoter in Milwaukee who fired them once, and a drunk who would have urinated on one of their expensive speakers at a club had one of the three not jumped him and taken him out to the alley. It’s fascinating, too, to hear their anecdote about Jimi Hendrix coming backstage to compliment them on their music and to say that Kath was a better guitarist than he was. These guys appreciate the journey they’ve had, and it’s an incredibly engaging time listening to them talk. Not so much when the young members are intercut, because there you get the predictable tributes and gushing gratitude. When Pankow muses that the clubs only wanted them to play Top 40 songs when they were starting out, he says something to the effect that now that’s all they do . . . only the Top 40 songs are their own! I guess that’s what happens when your band lasts 45 years and you’re the second most successful American band EVER . . . behind The Beach Boys.
The only other bonus feature is a trailer for the concert DVD.
There’s still no comparing this group to the original “magnificent seven,” but Lamm, Pankow and Loughnane say they really like this incarnation of the band. It’s clear they work well together largely because the new members grew up attending Chicago concerts and loving the music. Now, they feel honored to be playing the original songs with the remaining original four band members, changing it up just enough to make the tunes their own, but for the most part remaining faithful to the songs. As concerts go, this one is above average. It’ll inspire you to dig out your old albums and listen to them more than you have been, but it’s not a mind-blower, to resurrect a phrase from the year the band was formed.