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Concert review: CTA succeeds in dealing with sacred ground in Scottsdale

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California Transit Authority in concert, March 14, 2014, Scottsdale, AZ

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“Take me back to Chicago and lay my soul to rest. Where my life was free and easy. Remember me at my best.” So begins the Danny Seraphine/David “Hawk” Wolinski tune “Take Me Back To Chicago.” Seraphine’s plea could be misconstrued as to reminiscing about his days as the drummer and co-founder of the band Chicago. But after watching Seraphine and his new band, California Transit Authority, perform on Friday night, March 14, 2014 at the Talking Stick Resort Showroom in Scottsdale, there is no doubt that life for Seraphine now is much free and easier and that he still is at his best.

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California Transit Authority or “CTA” (as any Chicago the band fan knows, a play on Chicago’s initial name and initial album title) is the brainchild of Seraphine and guitarist Marc Bonilla (Toy Matinee, Keith Emerson). Started in 2006, primarily for charity events, CTA has two albums under its belt, 2007’s “Full Circle,” and 2013’s “Sacred Ground.”

With CTA’s addition of Bill Champlin, who was with Chicago from 1981 to 2009, the name recognition of Seraphine, Champlin and Chicago are used to help promote California Transit Authority’s appearances. But is CTA nothing but a Chicago tribute band? Shame on me for even making such a suggestion.

Right from the beginning of the slightly over two hour set, it was obvious that CTA is its own brand. The infectious grove of ‘Sacred Ground,” from the album of the same name, set the evening’s pace. Ex Tower of Power lead singer, Larry Braggs, brought stellar vocals, Champlin showed off his skills on the Hammond B3 organ and Seraphine’s drumming was the Seraphine that earned him a spot on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of top 100 drummers.

With “The Real World,” another cut off of “Sacred Ground,” Seraphine and CTA let the audience know that yes, with a three piece horn section and song writing skills that are naturally going to lean toward a certain style, CTA is going to sound Chicagoesque. But that's fine. It was as if some lost gems of the 1970’s version of Chicago were finally found, yet sounding fresh, not dated.

But CTA was not afraid to revisit the past either. As he did when with Chicago, Champlin took over the vocals for “Make Me Smile,” his soulful voice adding a different element to the song. Bonilla smoked on the guitar work and Seraphine’s short drum solo during the “Now More Than Ever” part that ends the single version of the song, made it difficult not to want to air drum along with him. It certainly brought the crowd to their feet.

The 1980’s version of Chicago was represented with Champlin’s handling of “I Don’t Want To Live Without Your Love,” and later on in the set, “Look Away.” Despite having sung those songs thousands of time, Champlin sang with a real enjoyment in his voice. A few in the audience helped him sing the songs as well.

Marc Bonilla’s “Out of Reason,” was another solid song off of “Sacred Ground,” which was followed by the Al Kooper penned “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” The song may have been a staple for that other rock band with horns, Blood, Sweat & Tears, but the CTA version was breathtaking. Bonilla got to show off some more guitar mastery. Braggs vocals were killer. Seraphine’s drumming was noticeable for what he wasn’t doing as much as it was for what he was doing. Most anyone can pound the drums but being subtle when the music calls for it, is a real skill. Once again the crowd rose to show their appreciation for the number.

The piano skills of band member, keyboardist Ed Roth, were showcased in a solo which had the audience clapping along even before the solo segued into “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”

Champlin’s song writing abilities, as well as his singing, were evident by the song Champlin co-wrote, the George Benson hit, “Turn Your Love Around.”

CTA’s inventiveness was at its peak with “West Virginia Fantasies,” part of Chicago’s “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” suite. Bonilla’s guitar took over all the challenging horn parts for the song, which in itself was fascinating until he tackled the follow up song, “Colour My World.” Bonilla, with some help from Roth, turned the song into a Pink Floyd experience. Bonilla’s impressive guitar work kept the audience spellbound.

Although the audience was content to sit throughout most of the performance, other than rise for a deserved standing ovation after most songs, the mob finally started to party, en masse, for “I’m A Man.” Bass player, Travis Davis, who had been adding great harmonies all night long, excelled on his opportunity to take over the lead vocal. Seraphine was able to give what many in the audience had hoped to see, a lengthy drum solo. Seraphine did not disappoint in his craftsmanship.

The regular set ended with “25 or 6 to 4,” which kept the audience on their feet, singing and dancing along to the band. Champlin, who had been playing rhythm guitar on occasion throughout the night, let loose with a great guitar showdown with Bonilla.

With the band returning for their encore, Bonilla gave the crowd one last jaw dropping guitar introduction, this time to “Saturday in the Park.” Bonilla’s work coupled with Champlin’s on the Hammond B3 organ and Roth’s on the piano keyboard made the song a rocker, not just some bouncy, catchy tune.

Overall, the set list was a great introduction for anyone that hasn’t seen or heard California Transit Authority. With 10 Chicago songs, there was plenty of something old. But with 5 songs from the two CTA albums, plus some imaginative reworking of some of the Chicago songs, there was something new as well. Seraphine, Bonilla, Champlin, Roth, Davis and Braggs are top notch musicians, song writers and performers. Two hours of listening to them goes by way too quickly.

Given the sometimes overlooked contributions that Seraphine made to his former group, it’s appropriate that his concert and album work will occasionally take him back to Chicago. But it’s good to see that L.A. wasn’t too hard on him. After all, Seraphine is a street player whose heart and soul will carry on.

Set List: Sacred Ground | The Real World | Make Me Smile/Now More Than Ever | I Don’t Want To Live Without Your Love | Out of Reason | I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know | Ed Roth Piano Solo/Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? | Turn Your Love Around | Full Circle | Look Away | Take Me Back To Chicago | West Virginia Fantasies/Colour My World | Dreams | Hard Habit To Break | I’m A Man | 25 or 6 to 4 | Encore: Saturday In The Park | Feeling Stronger Everyday

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