“Hello, Cleveland!” greeted a chipper Lou Loughnane from the Jacobs Pavilion stage Wednesday evening.
“This is the one time each year we get to say that—and be right!”
Of course, the trumpet player was referencing the memorable lost backstage gag depicted in Rob Reiner’s 1982 rock and roll parody This Is Spinal Tap. But there weren’t any unscripted comedies of error during Chicago’s sprawling two-plus hour set July 24th.
After all, this was Chicago—the jam band-cum-horn section formed some 45 years ago by a pack of doo-wop and jazz-loving teenage boys whose funky soul sounds and pop hits would dominate the charts for a quarter-century and help define the soundtrack of the boomer generation. These guys have played hundreds of shows a year—almost every year—since the release of 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority, so saying they’ve got their shit down would be an understatement.
The night’s nostalgia trip commenced with a trip back to the early ‘70s, with the nine-piece band serving up “Questions 67 & 68” and “Dialogue (Part I & II),” whose change-the-world subtexts ring with as much relevance today as during the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate. 1978 rocker “Alive Again” featured bassist Jason Scheff on vocals and some crackling lead guitar courtesy Keith Howland, whose Fender Stratocaster magic would’ve delighted late guitarist Terry Kath.
Keyboardist Robert Lamm welcomed Chicago’s northeast Ohio fan base before bringing a special guest singer onstage: Nancy Rybow [sic], who played a winning bid on the band’s website for a fan VIP pack, whose many perks included tackling vocals on the Peter Cetera-penned chestnut, “If You Leave Me Now.” The pretty, blonde Nancy wasn’t exactly pitch-perfect—but hey, she had the lyrics down pat and didn’t buckle in the spotlight. Moreover, her part in the online auction generated “a load of cash” for The American Cancer Society. The pavilion crowd reserved critique, rewarding Nancy instead with a round of heartfelt applause.
This year’s “Sing With Chicago” drive is dedicated to breast cancer survivor Paqui Kelly, close friend of the band and wife of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly.
The band still boasts four original members. James Pankow (trombone) and Walter Parazaider (sax, woodwinds) spent a lot of time front-and-center with fellow brass man Loughnane, while Lamm took in the the scene from behind aYamaha Motif ES-8. Drummer Tris Imboden (ex-Kenny Loggins, Steve Vai) has been behind the kit since Chicago Twenty-1. The band’s baby, Howland (48), has been onboard since ’95. Scheff (51) is in his 28th year with the group: That’s ten years longer than Peter, his bass-thumping predecessor. Keyboardist Lou Pardini (who’s performed with Santana and The Doobie Brothers) replaced Bill Champlin five years ago.
Chicago’s “newbie” now is Walfredo “Wally” Reyes, Jr., the Latino percussion ace who augmented the big beats for Steve Winwood, Boz Skaggs, and Lindsey Buckingham on prior tours with his Candido Camero congas.
A triplet of tunes from 1974’s Chicago VII followed. Fans helped Pardini out on the “I love you / you know I do” chorus of “Call On Me.” Imboden and Reyes used mallets on their timpani and cymbals to shimmery, cinematic effect on “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long).” Funky instrumental jam “Mongonucleosis” saw Loughnane and Parazadier prowling the corners of the stage with their horns and Pankow retreating to bang the drums with his buds in back,
Lamm took center mic for a stripped-down version of “Another Rainy Day in New York City,” strumming a 12-string acoustic guitar with only Reyes and Scheff for accompaniment, then the bassist sat at a keyboard on a stark, moving solo version of 1986 ballad “Will You Still Love Me.” Pardini lent his rich pipes to the Diane Warren-written smash “Look Away” (from Chicago 19), with the rest of the band returning for the repeating “I can’t go on / can’t go on” coda.
Chicago capped the first set with an incendiary run through multipart suite “Ballet for a Girl in Buchanan.” Pankow (who authored the 1970 miniepic) headed up the horney blasts on “Make Me Smile” with his phallic slide trombone, then Lamm and Scheff traded verses for psychedelic midsection “So Much to Say.” Parazaider graced “Colour My World” with some airy, delicate flute notes that fluttered over the Cuyahoga just as a freighter lumbered into view from around the river bend.
Speaking of colors, we extend our compliments to the firm responsible for upgrading the Terminal Tower’s display lights. Cleveland’s trademark tower alternated between a snazzy red, gold, and blue motif and a ghostly blue-green in the skyline beyond the Pavilion stage. The building’s never looked better.
Set II began with another Pankow gem, the uplifting “Old Days,” from 1975’s Chicago VIII (That’s the album with the cardinal on the front, for those as into the band’s prolific catalog of Roman / Arabic-designated covers as much as this writer). “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” “Beginnings,” and “I’m a Man” comprised a soulful medley from the band’s ’69 debut. People slowed danced in the aisles and sang along with the 1984 chart-toppers “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration” (both from Chicago 17, with the postal package cover art).
The melodious marathon continued with the disco-fueled “Street Player” (written by ex-drummer Danny Seraphine for 1979’s Street Player), “Just You ‘n’ Me” (from 1973’s Chicago VI), and the bouncy, Lamm-led “Saturday in the Park” (from 1972’s Chicago V). The concert’s final slow number, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” crescendoed with the same swinging “Get Away” outro appearing on Chicago 16—which made a fitting segue into a blusterous, buoyant “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.”
The band encored with the funky “Free” and their classic, guitar-driven space-out anthem “25 or 6 to 4” as a gigantic American flag backdrop unfurled, replacing the backdrop with their iconic swirl-script logo.
Not bad outing for a group of tireless road dogs with an average age of 60. Indeed, the band again demonstrated why it remains a perennial concert draw despite not having a major radio hit in years. Chicago still connects, its breezy horns, rootsy riffs, and heavenly harmonies transporting sexagenarians and thirty-somethings (and everyone between) back to the days of catchy, cleverly-arranged AM / FM bliss.
Chicago’s last batch of originals, XXX, dropped in 2006—but they’ve apparently been crafting a new studio album for an anticipated 2014 release. Incipient years have been marked by the release of several compilations, Christmas albums, and live sets: The group’s latest is Chicago XXXIV: Live in ’75.