There is one thing that has not changed about Chicago in its 40-year-history: its ability to showcase its versatile musicianship. From its early incarnation as the Big Thing in 1967, Chicago has always been a show band that can build up a sweat and still please an audience on stage. Even if its later records have evolved into high-tech glossy affairs that departed from the brassy avant garde and pop of its ‘70s heyday, the horn-powered outfit can always be counted to deliver the goods onstage every year.
And that is what the band did at a recent stop at Radio City Music Hall on May 9 as the group enters its 40th year of touring. Without a gimmicky stage-up or extra backing musicians that are usually follow tours by aging rock stars, the eight-man band just came out without pomp and pumped out hit after hit after hit (at last count, it performed 23 songs in the set, and there was maybe a good dozen more it could have added).
After years of only playing the hits on the road, this time around Chicago has its first new album in 15 years, Chicago XXX, to promote. However, only two songs from that album were performed: “Feel,” perhaps the group’s best song in years and sung by Robert Lamm, and the other “Love Will Come Back,” a ballad. Although some of the material on that album represents a return to form with the horns back to the forefront, the band perhaps knew wisely not to disappoint its audience weaned on those old classics.
And the band didn’t let the crowd down as the show tilted more towards the ‘70s era hits: the entire “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” suite (containing the opener “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World”), “Old Days,” “Dialogue,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Just You and Me,” and the good ol’ standby “Saturday in the Park.” Only two of the ‘80s power ballads were performed and were not as overbearing as their glossy album versions: “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “Look Away” (to the band’s credit or to the fans’ chagrin, “You’re The Inspiration” and “Hard Habit to Break” failed to make the set list) The surprise was a loose, heartfelt take on “You’re Not Alone,” an underrated gem from Chicago 19 sung by keyboardist Bill Champlin.
The ‘unplugged’ segment of the program was Chicago recasting its songs from the near-perfect recreations of the studio originals that were first recorded by former bassist Peter Cetera: the Latin-flavored “Another Rainy Day in New York City” sung by Lamm, followed by “Happy Man,” which featured a rare lead vocal by the group’s trumpeter Lee Loughnane.
Each of the members played well, especially the founding members, keyboardist Lamm, the only singer from the original band, and the section of trombonist James Pankow, trumpeter Loughnane, and woodwinds player Walter Parazaider; the latter members included bassist and vocalist Jason Scheff, keyboardist Champlin, drummer Tris Imboden, and Keith Howland, who might be the best guitar player the band has had since Terry Kath, who died in 1978. Howland’s playing would make his predecessor very proud, especially from his solos on “Dialogue” and “25 or 6 to 4.”
Chicago may not always get the respect it deserves from critics (The band has yet to be inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) but the songs have remained familiar staples of pop radio. Even if the songs are considered middle of the road to most rock fans, one can’t argue with their staying power. For the aging boomers and new fans in attendance, the Radio City show was a two-hour musical jukebox of those horn-flavored favorites.