Monday, June 28, 2021

Chicago in 2021: The Band That Still Makes People Smile

Fifty-three years later, the rock and roll band with horns is still going strong.

Billed as An Evening with Chicago and Their Greatest Hits, the band formerly known as Chicago Transit Authority (nee The Big Thing) landed in Dallas on Saturday night. As a Houstonian, I had planned to attend the Houston show the following night, but my son and I were in the Metroplex for the weekend and opted to see them at the venue formerly known as the Starplex. 

What made the show even more special was the folks with whom we attended the concert: my best friend since high school and his daughter. This was not just any old best friend. This was the guy who, in the summer of 1985, handed me a cassette copy of Chicago IX: Greatest Hits with the offhand comment that I'd know about half the songs and like the rest. I knew none of the songs, but was in love with the whole album. Thus began my fandom with Chicago and our concert-going experiences started a couple of years later. Starting in the late 80s and early 90s, after we both had vehicles and enough disposable income for concerts, we would often catch the Houston show one night and then drive to Dallas to see the show the next night (or vice versa). For the summer shows, it was always at the Starplex, so it was like coming full circle to bring our kids. 

Another friend, this time a college-era fellow marching band sax player, found me among the throng. On his Facebook post, he had a photo of both the 2021 eTicket and the ticket stub from the 1989 Austin show. We were at the 1989 show and now, thirty-two years later, we were at the same show again. He brought his daughter to keep alive the joy this music brings. 

I made a point not to look at the setlist ahead of time, an easy thing considering the Dallas show was only the third on the tour. But let's be honest: when the advertising is billed as a greatest hits show and the band is Chicago and it's 2021, you know what's going to be played. You go because it's Chicago. You go with your son because he is now a fan. You go with the guy who first introduced you to the band, the same guy with whom you sing all the horn breaks and all the little ad libs from the albums--like Terry Kath's 'woo oohs' in Make Me Smile or Robert Lamm's spoken vocals on Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is. You know what you're going to get.

But then the band surprises you.

The Surprises

Even though I got on the Chicago Train in 1985--the height of the ballad-heavy, Peter Cetera and David Foster sound--over the years, I have come to appreciate all eras of the band. Over time, my favorite song shifted until it has settled on Introduction, the Terry Kath-written tune that showed up on track one on the debut album. I often marvel at bands who release their Mission Statement Song right out of the gate, and Chicago is one of them. Yet Introduction isn't a song that shows up on the myriad of greatest hits albums. Would they play it? If so, I'd be a happy man.

As soon as the band walked out and said hello to us, I heard those first two notes. There are a handful of tunes that are great concert openers--a favorite is Along Comes a Woman where the horns make their entrance just in time for the horn break--but Introduction is a perfect way to start this set. As is befitting his tenure in the band, Lamm sung Kath's vocals and, despite a quirk in the soundboard mix which softened his voice, he made the band's original guitarist proud. 

From there, they segued into another cut from the first album, Question 67 & 68. Originally sung by Cetera, vocalist Neil Donell now sings the tenor part. This was my first time to see Donell in concert but not my first time to hear him. His vocals on Chicago 37: Christmas (2019) are spectacular and I was excited to hear how he put his own spin on those songs sung by Cetera and Jason Scheff (I never got to hear Jeff Coffey). I'll admit it's a little odd to have a bass player (Brett Simons) who doesn't sing lead and a lead singer who doesn't play an instrument, but I quickly got over it. Donell has a naturally high voice that doesn't hit falsetto and more than once during the show, he belted out a high, powerful note and held it. I love that he relishes the adoration of the fans as he sings these great songs. 

Dialogue marked the first time Lou Pardini sang lead. A replacement for both Kath and Bill Champlin, I have grown to really appreciate how Pardini interprets his lead vocals, particularly his phrasing. He's not singing Kath's parts like the record nor does he mimic the soulful Champlin's delivery. He's doing his own thing, holding out a note here, changing a note there, and truly making these classic hits his own. This was on full display in the biggest surprise of the night.

Late in the first set, Pardini came down center stage and started playing a keyboard set up for him. Only bassist Simons and Keith Howland on acoustic guitar accompanied him. He chatted with the audience over his playing then dropped the hint as to the song he's about to sing. He mentioned this song was a number one hit in 1989 and I instantly knew it's going to be Look Away. Over the years, Chicago 19 has risen in my personal list to where it now sits: my third favorite album, my favorite 80s-era album, and the album that contains my favorite Chicago song from the 1980s: You're Not Alone. With Champlin and Scheff gone from the band, I just chalked up the Chicago 19 songs as those the current iteration would never play. When that familiar keyboard riff started, I was over the moon.

I love the original version, I enjoyed the full-band version with Champlin, I really enjoyed the acoustic version Champlin started playing in 1995, but this 2021 version of the song with Pardini was truly special. Again, his phrasing really brings out the anguish the lyrics express. What I loved also is that the band brought horns into this original horn-less ballad, something they've done for all the 80s ballads. Pardini's interpretation of Look Away and his wonderful lead vocals on Chicago 37, especially I'd Do It All Again (Christmas Moon), make me smile every time. And I was grinning ear to ear on Saturday after Look Away.

But the band wasn't finished surprising me. Late in the second set, they broke out Street Player from Chicago 13. I know a lot of fans don't enjoy this album, but I enjoy the two-album Donnie Dacus era (Hot Streets and Chicago 13), and Chicago 13 still stands as my favorite album cover. As you can expect, Donell was able to hit those high notes with ease, even starting the song sounding like the remix many of us know.

They played all the 80s ballads, but the one that really seemed to hit the audience the most was Hard To Say I'm Sorry. Not sure what it is about this tune--maybe because it was the first 80s ballad--but most of the audience pulled out their cellphones and activated the flashlight feature in place of the lighters we all lit back in the day. Everyone was singing along and it was a blast.

Saturday in the Park is always in the set, but mainly it's been in the first quarter or third. When they broke it out after the raucous Get Away, it made for a great song placement. It's a sing-a-long tune and by placing arguably Lamm's most famous vocal at the end of the show, kicked the song's prominence up a notch.

And, as always, they closed out with 25 or 6 to 4. I mean, how else do you end a 30-song, three-hour Chicago concert? Agreed. No other way.

The Afterglow and the Reality

I can't count the number of times I've seen Chicago, but scheduling has prevented me from seeing them for the past few years. As a deep fan who often eschews the hits on my personal playlists in favor of the deep cuts (Mother [Carnegie version], Now That You've Gone, This Time, Hot Streets, Take a Chance, Reruns, Manipulation, If It Were You, all of Stone of Sisyphus, Come to Me Do, and I Can't Let Go all get constant spins), it was a thrill to hear the old classics again. Because they are the classics that will live on past the day the Chicago Train finally pulls into the station and the members disembark, confident they have earned their rest after five decades on the road.

Because let's be honest: the original guys are not getting any younger. They are in their seventies now. Founding trombonist and songwriter James Pankow wasn't there as he's recovering from surgery, leaving Lamm and trumpeter Lee Loughnane as the only ones still carrying the flag first picked up in 1967. Unless the newer guys continue on under the banner of Chicago after Loughnane and Lamm call it a day, there's going to be that last Chicago show. 

Even now, as I write this, a wave of emotion washes over me thinking about it. David Bowie, another of my four all-time favorite rock acts (KISS and Bruce Springsteen are the others), is already gone from this world and the shock of his death prevented me from truly enjoying his songs for awhile. Thankfully, back in April 2004, I got to see him, my third time. Turned out, a mere two months later, Bowie suffered the heart attack that ended his live touring career. 

In a recent interview with Jimmy Pardo from the Never Not Funny podcast, Pankow commented that the band used the COVID pandemic to write some new material for a new Chicago album. The lightening bolt of joy that coursed through me upon hearing those words was almost instantly tamped down by Pankow's follow-up comment: that it would likely be the band's last. 

Everything is finite, but music isn't. We still listen to Bach, Mozart, Bernstein, and McCartney/Lennon and will for decades to come. So, too, will we hear and enjoy the songs of Chicago, in all its iterations.

The Challenge

Why am I ending this review on a somber note? Well, it's to implore you with this thought. If you're on the fence about seeing Chicago in 2021, get off it and go see the show. 

You know their songs. You've danced at school dances to their ballads. You've driven down the highway with the windows open and their music blaring from your speakers. You've grown up with their songs and now have passed them down to your kids (and maybe even their kids). Their music is a part of the fabric of who you are. Now go see the guys who made the music and are still making the music. 

A thought occurred to me as I drove back to the hotel on Saturday night. In that immediate afterglow, I was reminded why I love this band so much. But those thoughts of the finite also passed through me. Did I just see my last Chicago show? Maybe. Maybe not. 

But if circumstances dictate that I have, then my last Chicago show--with my son at my side and my best friend and his daughter on the other--was perfect.


Barry Chitwood said...

What a thoughtful comprehensive review! Thank you for helping us enjoy how their music is interpreted today instead of making negative comparisons with band members of the past.

Kenny Hicks said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE this review! Thank you! I still LOVE Chicago's signature songs and I'm going to see them for my 11th time on July 13th in Mansfield, MA. I feel EXACTLY as you do also. I will always love Chicago no matter what songs they play. (Can you tell by the shirt I'm wearing in my profile pic?) I am 71, still playing in a very busy 60's, 70's and 80's cover band and we play the "big 4" (Beginnings, Saturday in the Park, Does Anybody Know What Time It is and 25 or 6 to 4.) Our audiences respond to those 4 songs more than any other songs we play! We don't have horns (5-piece band) but I cover them on my Korg Krome keyboard as closely as possible note for note. Thanks again for this SUPER review!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review! I have been a fan since I can remember and have seen them every year since 1994. Chicago is like a fine wine, thye just keep getting stronger every day!

Thank you!