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Chicago celebrates past, teases future in concert at Hard Rock Rocskino

Chicago concert at Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park on May 20, 2014


When you’ve been touring as long as Chicago, you’re gonna have a few off nights.

Chicago delivers marathon of hits at Hard Rock in Northfield, Ohio
Peter M. Roche
Chicago rocks out at Hard Rock Rocksino at Northfield Park
Peter M. Roche

This wasn’t one of ‘em.

The preeminent rock band-with-horn section returned to Ohio Tuesday night for a near-capacity gig at Hard Rock Rocksino at Northfield Park.

The brassy, ballad-savvy ensemble has sold nearly 40 million albums in the U.S. since its late ‘60s inception, with most of the LP sleeves stamped with enumerated titles like VII, X, XIV, 16, and Twenty-1 (and bearing some form of the iconic Chicago swirl logo). They’ve notched 18 platinum discs (22 gold) and racked up a slew of hits on the Billboard charts in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Despite the loss of some crucial players (guitarist Terry Kath died in ’78 and bassist Peter Cetera absconded in ’85), the unit still boasts four founding members some 45 years into the game. A shed staple for countless summers (they played Nautica last July), the band recently teamed with other “legacy” acts like Doobie Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire on a few memorable outdoor double-bills.

Chicago’s longest-standing players are in their mid-sixties. But rather than show any signs of stagnation, the band keeps taking bold steps into the future. The current outing finds the Windy City songsters promoting their forthcoming album—Chicago XXXVI: Now—due July 4th. They performed a patriotic new track, “America,” midway through the Rocksino set.

Dapper-dressed trumpeter Lee Loughnane said the troupe recorded the disc on the road last year, adding individual parts to the digital mosaic from hotel rooms and buses. It’s a strategy they hope to revisit later to avoid studio downtime; concerts are where the cash is.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Easy to do when you’re talking about an act that’s been churning out musical brilliance since before you were born.

The nine-strong band warmed things quickly with a pair of way-back cuts from their days as The Chicago Transit Authority (formerly The Big Thing): “Introduction” and “Questions 67 & 68,” strafing the enthused audience with the first of many nostalgic aural arrows. The gentlemanly, boat-moc-wearing Robert Lamm took lead vocal on these, strapped with a key-tar (more for show than anything else). But starting with 1972’s “Dialogue (Parts I & II)” Lamm passed the baton to the group’s other capable singers.

Jason Scheff (son of Elvis bassist Jerry) shone on perennial soft rock hit “If You Leave Me Know,” caressing his custom blue bass as guitarist Keith Howland strummed a 12-string acoustic guitar. Scheff also sang the up-tempo Hot Streets tune “Alive Again,” whereon Howland returned to his electric (a pink Fender Stratocaster) for some tasty wah-wah rhythm chords.

The brass section was a tour de force from the get-go. It wouldn’t be enough to say lifelong members (and principal songwriters) Loughnane and James Pankow (trombone) not only decorated the measures with their signature Chicago horns sound. These guys are responsible for as many Chicago melodies as its guitarists and keyboardists, and the two-hour set served reminder just how integral those contributions have been. Accompanying Pankow and Loughnane (and subbing for Walter Parazaider) was saxophonist Ray Herrmann (Brian Setzer, Whitney Houston), who kept pace with the boys’ synchronized dance moves as if he’d been beside them all along.

Lou Pardini (Stevie Wonder, EWF, Santana) busied himself with a Hammond XK3c and Yamaha Motif at the end of an elevated riser (stage right, situated behind Howland). The veteran studio keyboardist effectively filled all the parts formerly played by Bill Champlin—who flew the coup a couple years back—yet imbued the music with his own brand of soul. Pardini smiled a lot (as did Pankow and Loughnane), and there’s no discounting the significance of such non-verbal / musical gestures: Happy faces let audiences know the musicians they paid to see aren’t just phoning it in. It was clear these Chicago cats were having fun and didn’t want to be anywhere else.

Drummer Tris Imboden (Kenny Loggins, CSN) employed touches both hard and soft behind his kit, summonsing thunder and refined rim-shots alike. Newcomer percussionist Walfredo “Wally” Reyes, Jr. (Santana, Lindsey Buckingham) occupied the riser opposite Pardini, open-palming his bongos and congas and whacking other exotic drums (and cymbals) with mallets and sticks on “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long” and funky instrumental “Mongonucleosis.” Later in the set he and Imboden engaged in a memorable tandem drum-off / duel that transcended cliché rock ‘n’ roll drum solos by juxtaposing Tris’s big beats with Wally’s Latino-flavored flourishes (and humor). Fans attending upcoming shows should hold their bladders; it’s not to be missed.

Scheff was first up in a series of solo spots, dazzling at a satellite keyboard down front on “Will You Still Love Me?”—a Chicago 18 power ballad he sang to the top of the AC charts in 1987. Using “chest” and “head” voices, the bassist navigated the difficult, upper-register refrains without falter, receiving a standing-O for his effort. He deserved it.
“He’s a talented dude,” agreed Lamm, up next. “But I brought reinforcements. I need ‘em!”

Reyes (shaker) and Howland (acoustic guitar) accompanied Lamm on 1970 gem “Wake Up Sunshine” (the first song he ever wrote), then Pardini went alone on 1988’s “Look Away.” Howland strolled back out near the end, strumming his 12-string (capo II) as Loughnane waxed eloquent on flugelhorn.

Though it’s been utilized as the opener at prior shows, multi-part suite “Ballad for a Girl in Buchanan” was a choice pick for halfway highlight. Pankow, Loughnane, and Herrmann blared triumphantly on “Make Me Smile” (sung by Pardini), then reeled it in for the loping, mildly psychedelic “So Much to Say, So Much to Give” (sung by Lamm). Reverting to trumpet, Loughnane took the spotlight again on “Anxiety’s Moment,” then deferred to Herrmann (on flute) on quirky, Zappa-esque “Anxiety’s Moment.” Written by Pankow—and originally sung by Terry Kath (and packing the most famous opening 7th chord in pop music)—quintessential prom theme “Colour My World” was beautifully rendered by Loughnane before the band spilled back into the suite’s epic “To Be Free /Now More Than Ever” reprise.

Though he makes his living with his lips and lungs (and compositional chops), Pankow remains a human gyroscope whose ingrained sense of rhythm kept his hips swiveling and feet high-stepping with the horn section. J.P. still plays trombone with singular majesty, an exuberant physicality that sensualizes the instrument in much the same way a hot-shot guitarist might wield his axe like a phallus. Ask a teenager to go watch some trombonist do his thing, and he’ll understandably roll his eyes. But park him front-and-center at a Chicago show, and Pankow will go Yoda on the youth, opening his eyes and ears to the potential of Brass Man as bona fide Rock God. So don’t quit high school marching band just yet, kids.

Howland dialed up some guitar distortion on “Old Days” (sung by Scheff). Lamm again asked “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” while pumping the Motif keyboard down front. If he’s grown tired of the temporal tune after a million performances, he didn’t let on.

Lamm reported that 90% of Chicago material was authored by himself or his “brothers in the band,” but acknowledged taking on outside songwriters (like Diane Warren) in the ‘80s at the advice of their producer (David Foster). He called “Hard Habit to Break” the “beautiful result” of that comprise and—recreated here with Scheff and Pardini tackling the vocals once assigned Cetera and Champlin—there was no arguing with him. Howland scorched on his go-to green guitar, and Herrmann seasoned the strains with additonal flute. Fellow Chicago 17 smash “You’re the Inspiration” (Scheff again) also drew an overwhelmingly positive response.

Both Howland and Lamm brandished acoustics on the uplifting (and timelessly optimistic) Beginnings,” whereon Reyes dove deep into his percussion arsenal—and surfaced with a vibraslap. Wally’s band mates also added percussion on the Spencer Davis cover “I’m a Man” (shaker, wood block, tambourine), winding up for the aforementioned Imboden / Reyes drum-a-thon. “Street Player” showed the band’s disco side (hey, it was 1979, give them a break).

Lamm prefaced the tender “Just You ‘n’ Me” (Scheff) by saying the song’s historically had two audiences: Those who were married to it, and those who were conceived to it. Piano-powered “Saturday in the Park” cleared Rocksino’s folding chairs of asses, flooding the aisles with eager dancers and iPhone photographers. Chicago 16 single “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” segued into “Get Away,” which in turn bled into an enthusiastic—and, in Chicago’s case, defiant—“Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.”

Chicago’s Cleveland / Akron contingent couldn’t have asked for more, but the troupe encored with a celebratory “Free” and signed off with a revved-up (if still lyrically enigmatic) “25 or 6 to 4.”

This wasn’t merely the best Chicago show we’ve seen (and we’ve caught a few). It was one of the best shows we’ve ever witnessed, period. Having a massive catalog of great selections to choose from doubtlessly makes for better gigs, and at this point Lamm and co. probably spend more time debating which songs to omit (no fillers here). But the odds of each and every member in a musical group having an especially “on” night is, theoretically, inversely proportionate to the number of people in said group. The more people, the less likely every nuance of every song will be perfect, that your night will unfold with nary a gaffe or glitch.

Maybe the stars were aligned just so, but everything clicked for all nine Chicagoans on May 20th.

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