Friday, August 16, 2019

Chicago 13 at 40

This is not Chicago's worst album. It is among the ones I return to often. But it also doesn't make it one of Chicago's best.

The Post Terry Kath Era

Chicago 13 arrived in stores forty years ago this week (Tuesday, 13 August to be exact). The record marked the second and last album to feature Donnie Dacus, the first replacement lead guitarist and singer after Terry Kath's untimely death. Looking back on the time now, I understand why the founding members of the band made the choices they did. Kath, the soul of the band, was gone. So, too, was his deeper voice, and his extraordinarily unique guitar playing. His was a style born out of the 1960s and early 1970s, a musical style that, by 1979, had changed and morphed into something different. You can hear Kath's own style changing, especially in his playing on Chicago XI. A favorite guitar piece, "This Time," Kath was already adjusting and pointing in a different direction. Change was inevitable.

But his absence carved a hole out of the band that, arguably, has never truly been filled. He was one-of-a-kind, the underappreciated rock guitar monster most veteran guitarists acknowledge could play circles around most of them. By 1979, long-haired guitarists fronted album covers--Peter Frampton. A brand-new style was debuted only a year before: Eddie Van Halen. The lead guitarist as leader of the band was nothing new--just watch old Chicago shows from the early days and you can see Kath was the leader. So when it came time for the band to audition a new guitarist, that person was going to be put front and center.

Donnie Dacus was twenty seven when he joined Chicago and recorded Hot Streets in 1978. He brought a youthful energy to playing the old songs and the new ones. He was different than Kath, but his style matched the era, just like Chris Pinnick's did in the early 1980s and how DaWayne Bailey's Van Halen-esque style did in the late 80s and early 90s when I got on board. One of my favorite all-time shows is the Los Angeles concert with the orchestra. Dacus was fantastic in that show, and every show I've seen with him. It would have been interesting to see what the band would have done had Dacus remained for XIV, but then, we'd not get Pinnick's great playing.

Be that as it may, the Dacus Era ended in 1979, but not before 13 August, when Chicago 13 debuted. And it had one of my favorite things the band ever did.

The Cover

Let's get this out of the way early: This is my favorite Chicago album cover. In a gallery of album covers, 13 stands out. It's not the plain wood, leather, or steel of the early album covers. It's not one that obscures the logo like 16 or Twenty-1. It's the signature logo, front and center, in the most interesting presentation among the albums. Come to think of it, in terms of visual appeal, Chicago 25 is up there. I'll have to do a Top 10 list of favorite Chicago album covers someday, but the top spot is already taken.

Side One

Street Player - To start one of the more energic, dancable, and fun tunes off with a rim shot? This is certainly not Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," but I can't think of another Chicago tune that starts solely with percussion. One of the more recognizable horn licks Chicago has ever written. Heck, it's one I can sing to myself while on a walk. The gorgeous disco beat in infectious. And there's cowbell! Peter Cetera's vocals soaring high above the music. He and Dacus make a good, high-tenor pair. True, the band missed the deeper, soulful Kath vocal, but setting that aside, Cetera and Dacus are good together. Speaking of soaring, Maynard Ferguson's trumpet is awesome. I remember hearing 13 for the first time in the mid 1980s and scrambling for the liner notes--I think the cassette version didn't have them so we had to find an album--to confirm what could only be Ferguson. Easily the best song on the album.

Mama Take - With an acoustic guitar and electric guitar intro, this tune is the direct descendant to Hot Streets' "Gone Long Gone." Again, Cetera leads the way, often serving as his own backup vocalist, a trend I never truly enjoyed. The horn break is pretty good. Well, are there any bad Chicago horn breaks? Nothing to write home about, but a serviceable pop tune.

Must Have Been Crazy - Dacus wrote this tune and it served as the lead single to the album. It's a curious song with which to lead. In a precursor to the 1980s Chicago songs, this song downplayed what a Chicago song was supposed to sound like. Sure, you got Cetera in the background, but no discernable influence by Robert Lamm, and no horns. There is a cowbell, and a short guitar by Dacus. I'm all for the Dacus years and giving him a front-and-center look, but unlike Bill Champlin in the 80s, Dacus didn't write a Chicago song. He wrote a Dacus song. The tune certainly fit the times. You easily imagine this song sung by REO Speedwagon or Supertramp, but even then, I'd have much rather had Street Player be the lead single.

Window Dreamin' - Chicago 13, along with Chicago VII, share one particular thing in common: every member of the band contributed a song. This entry is by saxophone player Walter Parazaider and trumpeter Lee Loughnane. You can hear it in the opening seconds when the horns lead off this track. The vocals kick in, and it likely sent listeners in 1979 to the liner notes. Who the heck is "P.C. Mobelee"? It's clearly Cetera, but why the rigmarole of renaming himself. He sang in his lower register more than once before (parts of Hideaway from VIII and State of the Union from V and Song for You from XIV jump instantly to mind), so what's the point? His vocals actually make it more difficult to hear the words. Killer guitar solo, especially the sound of it amid all the horns. That sequence is probably my favorite part of the song. The groove is pretty good, too, but it would have been so much better if Cetera just sung it normally. Or Lamm.

Paradise Alley - Speaking of groove, this tune takes a sound straight from Stevie Wonder. It figures since Lamm wrote the song. Surprisingly, he doesn't sing it. It's Dacus again. Drummer Danny Seraphine shines on this song (as he does over the entire album. If Chicago XI is a Kath album, then 13 is a Seraphine album). I love the bridge (the "It reminds you of who you used to be and who you are" part). The sound and vibe change. It's a fun song and it closes out side one of the album.

Side Two

Aloha Mama - Despite the song title, this song opens with a horn lick straight out of New Orleans. If you had any doubt, when Loughnane comes in with his flutter trumpet, you are in a sweaty bar down in Louisiana. P.C. Moblee makes his second appearance on the album, but Cetera sings much better here. The horns are all over this tune written by Seraphine and Hank Wolinski, the same pair responsible for Street Player (and Take Me Back to Chicago and Little One from XI). They know what components a Chicago song is supposed to contain, and they deliver a highlight of the album. If you also need proof Cetera can sing rough, his closing vocals are the proof.

Reruns - Finally, a Lamm-sung tune. And it's brilliant. Deep, heavy groove. Stellar horns. Lamm's smooth-as-silk vocals. And cowbell! I love this song. And, in a hallmark of most every Lamm song on any album, you can hear the *other* guys in the band singing backup. It's another example of how well blended Cetera and Dacus actually are. You don't get a "wall of Lamms" like Cetera does for his own tunes. Jimmy Pankow's horn arrangement is another one I can find myself singing at random times. I know little of Lamm's personal life, but the lyrics pretty much point to a down time. Sorry for him, but he delivers one of his best-ever songs.

Loser With a Broken Heart - The harbinger of what was to come in the 1980s. Speaking of backing up your own lead vocals, I can't hear anyone besides Cetera here. No horns. No keys other than the organ playing whole notes. It's basically a feature song for Cetera's vocals. Considering he wrote If You Leave Me Now (the band's first #1 song), Baby, What a Big Surprise, and No Teller Lover, this song could have easily been predicted. Tasteful, but short, guitar solo toward the end. And for a guy who played his bass on the earlier Chicago albums in the style of Paul McCartney, Cetera just sticks with eighth notes here. It's an okay song.

Life Is What It Is - Talk about a time capsule song, this song just reeks of the late 70s...but in a gorgeous way. Seraphine's wonderful high-hat cymbal drives this song with nice horns in the background. Cetera is perfect here. And all that Cetera-backing-Cetera stuff? I actually like it here. But you can hear Dacus in the background on verse three, so he should have done it from the get-go. I've always linked this song with Love Was New from Hot Streets. And we finally get a horn solo with Pankow's trombone. This is one of those songs that just makes me smile. I didn't know the song, album, or band in 1979, but with this tune, it's almost like I did. The vibe takes me back forty years.

Run Away - The sole song written by Pankow, the tune begins with a decent groove and first couple of verses. The half-time section is a favorite of mine because it showcases a long-standing hallmark of Chicago songs: multiple voices singing lead. Here Cetera and Dacus shine. But the song is a little light on content and substance, despite Dacus's guitar soloing during the fade out.

Bonus Track

The original album contained only those ten songs. The 2003 reissue included the song Closer to You and an alternate mix of Street Player. I had already purchased the 1991 Group Portrait box set so I've had this song for a long time.

And boy is it great! Dacus sings lead on a tune that has the vibe similar to Life Is What It Is mixed with Take a Chance from Hot Streets (my favorite Dacus/Chicago song). The horns are everywhere on this cut, Seraphine's cymbal work is great, and Lamm's keys give a great undercurrent. Dacus's vocals are fantastic here, giving the tune an urgency. The horn break is excellent, and in a page ripped from Chuck Mangione, Loughnane's fluglehorn soars in a short solo. How in the world did this song not make the original album? Perhaps it was the similarity to Life Is What It Is. Perhaps the original members didn't want to give Dacus a third song (fourth if you include the duet with Cetera on Run Away). Who knows. But Closer to You belongs on the album and I've always included it on the various playlists I've created over the years. It's top 3 for this album.

The Verdict

The Dacus Era was not to last. I don't know all the personal details about 1978-1979, but I appreciate how difficult it must have been for the founding members to move on. I've read Robert Lamm had a bad time which was probably why he has only two writing credits on Chicago 13 with only one vocal. But this era--and this album in particular--saw the rise of Danny Seraphine's songs. The man can write some killer songs, with one long-standing hit so popular, it was sampled twice. If you want the man's insight on this era, check out the Nakedly Examined Music Podcast.

The era also saw the ascendancy of Peter Cetera as a songwriter and leader. Say what you will about his style and the types of songs he writes, but there was a void in the band and he filled it. By doing so, we are able to witness the band's fifty-second year of existence and their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Without him, that likely doesn't happen.

And I'm glad it did. Without the Cetera Era, we don't get the great ballads that introduced me to the band. Without Cetera, Chicago doesn't become one of my two all-time favorite bands. I've listened for thirty-four years now and I've come to love the Originals Era best, but that doesn't mean I don't love the Dacus Era. I do. In fact, I have a 1978-1979 playlist on my phone. It's a great vibe that reminds me of that time in my life even though I didn't know the band at the time.

I enjoy Chicago 13 much more than I used to. Heck, I enjoy the Dacus era quite a bit. I enjoy scouring YouTube for live cuts just to hear him play. Earlier this year, I bought the vinyl of 13 and just sat and listened to it. Very enjoyable album.

I place Hot Streets in my Top 10 Chicago albums. I enjoy the songs of Chicago XIV, but I prefer them in my own revised order. Chicago 13 isn't a top 10 album, but if you judge the catalog by how many times I return to 13 and listen to these songs, it's Top 15. Pretty darn good for an album many fans--and likely some band members--rarely discuss. Sure, there might be better albums, but here, on this album's 40th anniversary, I'm glad it was made. It marked a band in transition from one era to the next. It's a fascinating pocket of time in the band's history.

If you haven't spun it in a long time, break it out. Give it another listen. The music will surprise you and remind you what a talented group of muscians can do with changing musical styles.

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