“Old days. Good times I remember. Fun days. Filled with simple pleasures.” When Chicago’s trombone player extraordinaire, James Pankow, wrote those lyrics thirty eight years ago, he was reminiscing about his youth. For those in attendance at the sold out Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix on Saturday night, August 10, 2013, with that song and more, Chicago brought back memories of the audience’s youth, be it from the psychedelic ‘60’s, the disco 70’s or the new wave ‘80’s.
With a set list that included five selections off their very first album, 1969’s “The Chicago Transit Authority,” nine top forty hits from the 1970’s and five top five hits from the 1980’s, Chicago gave everyone a chance to hear the Chicago song or songs they grew up with. Audience participation in regards to singing along with the songs (and there was plenty) appeared to correspond to at what point in their life did that person discover Chicago.
So that even more of their popular song catalog could be heard in concert, Chicago, for the 2013 tour, has extended their concert time to two one hour sets rather than play just one shorter set like they have done the last few years. The additional songs helped placate both the fan who is seeing Chicago for the first time and expects to hear nothing but hits and the rabid Chicago fan who catches their performance every year and would like to hear something different.
Chicago elected to start out the night from the very beginning, album one, side one, song one. No, it wasn’t “Beginnings,” which would be played later on, but rather “Introduction,” the Terry Kath song that first gave the world notice that Chicago’s brand of jazz and rock could be successfully combined. Original member, keyboard player, Robert Lamm, took center stage with his keytar and handled the opening vocals.
From there it was another song from Chicago’s first album, “Questions 67 and 68,” which, like “Introduction,” is an addition to the set list Chicago played last year. Right away the distinctive mix of Chicago’s horn section, Lee Loughnane on horns, Walter Parazaider on saxophone and flute and the always active James Pankow on trombone sounded dead on. These guys are so good and so smooth, it’s easy to take what they do for granted.
Some die hard early Chicago fans can’t seem to move on past the loss of Chicago’s original guitarist Terry Kath (lost forever in 1978 due to a tragic accidental gunshot wound) and original bass player, Peter Cetera (departing Chicago in 1985 to pursue a solo career). For those such fans, “Dialog Part I,” which featured the call and response singing of Kath and Cetera can never be duplicated. But for those that can accept change, bass player, Jason Scheff, who replaced Cetera in 1985, and keyboard player Lou Pardini did a great job on the vocals. Both Scheff and Pardini handled most of the band’s lead vocals solidly throughout the night.
Anytime an amateur singer is pulled onstage to sing with the band, there is always the concern it will become a cringe worthy moment and kill the momentum the band may have created with the audience. To Chicago’s credit, they are willing to take that risk at every concert and allow a winner of the “Sing With Chicago” auction, which raises money for the American Cancer Society, to sing on stage with the band “If You Leave Me Now.” Fortunately, for this night, any crisis was avoided as the winner came through.
After the band blazed through “Mongonucleosis,” an instrumental so hot that Pankow was recruited to play percussion along with drummer Tris Imboden and percussionist Walfredo Reyes, it was time for Chicago unplugged. The entire band left the stage as the stage crew set up one solitary keyboard center stage.
First, it was Scheff that took his place alone and captivated the audience with “Will You Still Love Me?” (maybe someday we’ll get to hear Scheff’s “Bigger Than Elvis”). Next it was Lamm’s turn, who along with a subdued Reyes and Keith Howland on guitar, did a new turn on “Another Rainy Day in New York City.”
Finally Pardini ventured into solo territory for “Look Away,” the song slowly building until the entire band joined him for the last verse.
The first set closed with a bang with the it never gets old, “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” suite, with the vocals being spread around as they had been all evening, keyboardist Lou Pardini handling “Make Me Smile,” and Lee Loughnane doing a turn on “Colour My World.” Howland showed he is a worthy successor to Kath with his own brand of guitar gymnastics.
After the break, the band returned with the rarely heard “Canon” from “Chicago III.” Its horn only melody was another reminder that despite some producers’ efforts on Chicago’s albums in the 1980’s to push back the brass sound of Chicago, it is Loughnane, Parazaider and Pankow that drive the Chicago sound.
The second set was more of the same, which was a good thing. There were two more selections, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings,” from Chicago’s first album. The latter song had Lamm on lead vocal and acoustic guitar with the rousing horn frenzy finish bringing nearly everyone in the crowd to their feet.
Those that prefer the Chicago hits of the 1980’s were treated to back to back Chicago chart busters, “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration.” Gauging by the audience response, many do prefer the Chicago hits of the 1980’s.
But the power ballads shared time with Chicago’s rock and roll beginnings. Howland’s guitar screamed through “I’m a Man,” and Lamm’s vocals gave way to another of the evening’s highlights, the drum and percussion duet between Imboden and Reyes. The Celebrity Theatre’s rotating stage allowed the audience to see what Imboden was doing from behind as well as what Reyes was doing in front.
It may have taken all night, but the band finally got everyone up and on their feet as “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” segued into “Get Away.” For the first time of the night, the energy of the crowd finally matched the energy on stage. It remained for a shortened version of “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” that closed the regular set. It was no problem to coax the band back for two more numbers, the rockers “Free” and “25 or 6 to 4.”
As Pankow said near the end of the evening, “you keep coming back, we’ll keep coming to town.” After last year’s performance I suggested that it might take a five hour concert to get in all the Chicago material everyone would like to hear. Maybe next year Chicago can play a pair of hour and 15 minute sets. Baby steps.
Set One: Introduction| Questions 67 & 68 | Dialog (Parts I & II) | Alive Again | | If You Leave Me Now | Call On Me | (I’ve Been) Searching So Long | Mongonucleosis | Will You Still Love Me? | Another Rainy Day In New York City | Look Away| | Ballet For a Girl In Buchannon a) Make Me Smile; b) So Much To Say, So Much To Give; c) Anxiety’s Moment; d) West Virginia Fantasies; e) Colour My World; f) To Be Free; g) Now More Than Ever
Set Two: Canon | Old Days | Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? | Hard Habit To Break | You’re The Inspiration | Beginnings | I’m A Man | Street Player | Just You ‘N’ Me | Saturday In The Park | Hard To Say I’m Sorry/Get Away | Feelin’ Stronger Every Day |
Encore: Free | 25 Or 6 To 4