by Matt Wardlaw
“Man, oh man!” Those words, spoken at the end of the night by Chicago trombone player James Pankow, a founding member of the group, provided a succinct and accurate description of the blistering set that the band had just laid out.
Chicago’s sold out gig last night at Hard Rock Live was a jaw-dropping experience on a number of levels. First, the horn section — a powerful trio providing a swirling storm of constant activity with Pankow on the trombone, Lee Loughnane on trumpet and Ray Herrmann on woodwinds (a temporary sub for original member Walt Parazaider, who was absent) as always, was quite a sight to see. They’ve earned their legendary reputation for a reason — one could watch the conversations between these guys, musical and otherwise, all night long — and certainly, some folks did.
But it was also the duration of the evening that was impressive — once the band came on stage at 8 p.m. sharp, appropriately enough kicking things off with “Introduction,” the first of two songs in a row from their landmark Chicago Transit Authority release, they would stay there for two hours and 20 minutes, with only a brief encore break. For a group that’s entering its 47th year on the road, that’s quite a feat.
Certainly, there’s a lot of ground to cover because, after all, you’re talking about a band that has been around through a lot of different formats, from gatefold albums with T-shirt transfers and fold-out posters to eight-track tapes, cassettes, compact discs, MP3 files and these days, yeah, there’s probably a new generation of kids who have gone back to black to discover the music of Chicago once again on vinyl.
We’ve heard all sorts of things from Chicago over the years, both songs with social commentary and also power ballads, expertly crafted for the radio and the great part about the evening was that there was a little bit of room for all of it. While the hits were present, from “Saturday In the Park,” to “If You Leave Me Now” to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” there were also some interesting side trips, such as “Street Player,” a cut sourced from Chicago 13, one of the albums that the band made during the disco era in the late ’70s. The free-form instrumental “Mongonucleosis,” a Pankow composition, gave nearly everybody onstage, including the horn section, drummer Tris Imboden, percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. and guitarist Keith Howland a piece of the action; it was one of two tracks lifted off the Chicago VII release.
This year marks the 30th anniversary for Chicago 17, the group’s most famous album, which they recorded during a time in the ’80s when they were working with producer David Foster. While he didn’t acknowledge the anniversary directly, keyboardist Robert Lamm spoke about their encounters with Foster and talked about how he praised all of the songs that they had written over the years but advised them that they’d be wise to consider recording some songs that they didn’t write. “Hard Habit To Break” was one song that came out of that experience, something that Lamm termed as a “beautiful result.”
They’ve accumulated quite a few of those beautiful results in nearly half a century of making music together and last night’s concert gave them a chance to share one heck of a highlight reel. Chicago “now” (to borrow from the title of their forthcoming album) is still really good.