Chicago breezed through Akron, Ohio last night (May 16) with a nostalgic—but highly nuanced—performance at E.J. Thomas Hall.
The ultimate American “rock and roll band with horns” helped define the soundtrack for an entire generation with its protest and party-time R&B (1970s), balmy ballads (‘70s and ‘80s), and guitar-laced power pop (‘80s and ‘90s). They’ve sold millions of albums around the globe, boast several multi-platinum albums, and scored more Top Ten hits than you can count on your fingers and toes.
The group’s founding seven subjects were (finally) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 and were the subject of the critically-acclaimed documentary Now More Than Ever).
But the blustery bunch still isn’t ready to pack in the brass for good.
As a matter of fact, these arena alumni haven’t skipped a year of touring since the band’s formation in the Summer of Love over a half-century ago. And while the gap between Chicago albums has increased over the decades, its four remaining original members and their talented cohorts continue to cut new Roman-numbered studio LPs in between all the best-ofs, box sets, and live-in-concert compilations…and summer shed tours with pals Earth, Wind & Fire and the Doobie Brothers.
But Tuesday’s terrific show focused on Chicago’s jazzy, artsier early years (the Ford, Carter, and Reagan eras). Despite celebrating its golden jubilee last winter, the Windy City ensemble ignored everything issued after 1990 in deference to the surplus of vintage super-hits produced by James William Guercio (‘70s), Phil Ramone (‘70s), and David Foster (’80).
Imagine, if you will, a residential street named Chicago whose addresses correspond with album titles like III, VIII, X, and 16. Ohio fans were only invited into the first (1969’s Chicago Transit Authority) through the nineteenth (1988) “houses.”
Judging from the responses, nobody inside the University of Akron theater-minded missing out on tracks from 1991’s Twenty 1, 2006’s XXX and 2016’s XXXVI: Now. Heck, the band probably had a hard enough time choosing which tunes to play (and which to omit) from their swirly-logo efforts of yore. But Chicago served up proved a tantalizing menu of memorable musical treats, all sandwiched into two hour-long sets (with a 15-minute intermission) marked by the band’s signature high-octane instrumentation and vocals.
Fittingly, the eight-piece began precisely at the beginning, greeting appreciative Akron onlookers with feisty fare (“Introduction,” “Questions 67 & 68”) from its debut disc before shuffling through the ‘70s. “Dialogue” (from 1972’s Chicago V) occasioned cool call-and-response vocals from keyboardist Lou Pardini (who replaced Bill Champlin in 2008) and new bassist Jeff Coffey (who supplanted Jason Scheff last year), while energetic “Alive Again” (from 1978’s Hot Streets) showcased Coffey’s soaring tenor. Robert Lamm brandished a keytar at the onset and shared the center spotlights with fellow patriarchs Jimmy Pankow (trombone) and Lee Loughnane (trumpet).
Longtime Chicago affiliate Ray Herrmann subbed for the semi-retired Walt Parazaider on sax on flutes. Planting himself between Pankow and Loughnane, the tall, suit-jacketed journeyman lent whimsy to Chicago VII (1974) entries “Call On Me” and “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long.” Herrmann also kept up with the veteran horn players’ synchronized dance moves and choreography—making for kinetic, engaging visuals.
Drummer Tris Imboden (who replaced Danny Seraphine in 1990) set the pace with power and finesse while percussionist Walfredo de los Reyes, Jr. (on since 2012) commanded congas, bongos, and bells. Playing custom DW shells (specially gilded for the band’s anniversary), the two beat-keepers collaborated on an exciting (and funny) percussion showpiece (during “I’m a Man”) that incorporated Caribbean and Latin grooves. Other band members got a chance to add percussion on Chicago VII barn-burner “Mongonucleosis,” whose rugged rhythms evoked Spanish barrios and Mexican bodegas.
Howland and Coffey rendered “If You Leave Me Now” (1976’s Chicago X—the “chocolate bar” album) as an intimate, unplugged duet, with the former picking a twelve-string acoustic guitar. Lamm tickled the ivories of a Yamaha electric piano down front on “Another Rainy Day in New York City,” accompanied by Howland (guitar), Reyes (djembe and maracas), and Herrmann (sax). Then Pardini went solo, segueing from a bit of blues piano into FM smash “Look Away,” his vocal inflections earnest and strong.
The first set climaxed with the Pankow-written Chicago II (or more simply Chicago) suite “Ballet for a Girl in Buchanan,” wherein the full band blared joyfully through upbeat “Make Me Smile” before indulging quieter instrumental passages like “Anxiety’s Moment” and “West Virginia Fantasies”—which showcased the horns. Loughnane capably handled Kath’s lead vocal on a touching “Colour My World”—and Herrmann reinterpreted Parazaider’s playful flute solo.
Lamm prefaced Chicago 17 (1984) hits “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration” by explaining how record producers convinced the band to update its sound. Pardini assumed the brunt of vocal duties on the former, while Coffey did a spot-on Peter Cetera impression on the latter.
Three or four band members strummed acoustic guitars on “Beginnings,” whose whoa-oh-oh refrain was taken up by the eager audience. “I’m A Man” was laden with drums and ornamental percussion but nonetheless thrust Howland up front with a sizzling Fender Stratocaster solo. The disco-charged “Street Player” (from 1979’s Chicago 13) pulsated and throbbed with energy; the tune’s aged remarkably well on stage.
One final softer spell featured Loughnane’s lovely “Just You ‘n’ Me” (with a mellifluous soprano sax solo by Herrmann during the “ocean surf” interlude) and Coffey-sung apology “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” (from 1982’s Chicago 16).
But then the guys veered into “Sorry” tack-on “Get Away,” whose robust, cheerful coda set the mood for Lamm gem “Saturday In the Park” and Howland standout “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.” Encore “Free” (from Kath’s “Travel Suite” on Chicago III) brought proceedings to a fever-pitch, while finale “25 or 6 to 4” closed things out with distorted guitar riffs, titanic drums, and thunderous horns.
There may or may never be a Chicago XXXVII on store shelves (or online, as it happens). But clearly, the demand for classic Chicago music live-in-concert still runs high.
Fortunately, these old cats still cook.
Visit the band’s website for additional tour dates, including the Summer 2017 schedule with co-headliners the Doobie Brothers.
Don't forget that Chicago is playing the beautiful Mountain Winery on August 30; grab your tickets here.