Chicago Transcends Time and Fashion at Starlight

Several times during the course of their nearly sold-out show May 26 at Starlight, members of the band Chicago reminded fans how long the group had been performing live and making records: 56 years. Even more pertinent was every time someone called the band’s songs “timeless.” Because that’s what they are, and that’s what the ten-piece orchestra proved emphatically during a show that lasted two hours and change (plus a 25-minute intermission).

They started at the beginning, opening with a salvo of songs from their earliest, classic albums: Introduction, Dialogue (Part I & II), Questions 67 & 68, Call on Me, Wake Up Sunshine, and (I’ve Been) Searching So Long, all from albums recorded in 1967-72. Back then, the ensemble leaned hard into its founding concept: mix rock music with jazz, R&B, and soul by pairing the standard rock-band lineup with a busy, active horn section.

From the inception, it was a winning formula, thanks to the elite musicianship and the songwriting, which swerved and veered away from the average Top 40 formulas at the time into something much more adventurous and complicated. Nonetheless, their music had no trouble attracting mainstream fans immediately enchanted by a sound that took them into new musical orbits but rarely strayed from the essentials: sweet melodies and deep-dish grooves.

They opened with Introduction, the lead track from the perfect debut, Chicago Transit Authority, their baptismal name. It turned 54 in April but still sounds as relevant as ever. That song was the perfect opener: gritty, funky, bluesy, soulful, fusion-jazzy, and predominantly instrumental. As would be the case all night, the jams were concise and purposeful, not bloated or extra-jammy. And as also would be the case, the horn section did much of the heavy lifting.

They followed that with Dialogue (from Chicago V, released in 1972, their fourth studio album in three years). It was of the same formula but in a different mood: flurries of bright, manic, and groovy interplay between horns, guitars, keys, and percussion with minimal vocals. Next, the breezy and soulful Call on Me, which bears Latin-music traits.

The current lineup includes three founding members: Robert Lamm (vocals, keyboards), Lee Loughane (horns, vocals), and James Pankow (trombone, vocals). Of the remaining members, drummer/percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr., has been around the longest: since 2012. The spotlight is shared generously among all members, so no one is cast into the periphery. But primary vocalist Neil Donell was most prominent, as a lead singer and as the band’s spokesman, its conduit to its audience.

The show was split into two sets separated by an intermission. They ended the first set with a run of songs that illustrated how the band deftly thrived in two music terrains: the horn-fed world of jazz/rock/R&B, akin to bands like Blood Sweat & Tears or Earth Wind & Fire; and the soft-rock landscape, akin to REO Speedwagon or Air Supply.

Just as impressive: how many of its fans have long gone along for the ride. Thus, the hearty singalong to the gooey love ballad If You Leave Me Now. That was followed by the unleashing of the brash and brassy Make Me Smile, which roiled with horn interplay. They fused that into one of their most famous ballads, Colour My World, before, via an instrumental interlude, veering, full steam ahead, back into Smile. A perfect way to end the set.

The second half ensued much like the first: a mix of the soft and mellow, like the back-to-back ballads Hard Habit to Break and You’re the Inspiration, with the funky and furious (the rollicking second half of Feelin’ Stronger Every Day), and a few in-betweeners, like the satiny Beginnings (sweet vocals by Lamm) and Just You ‘n’ Me. During one of the soft-rock moments after dusk had descended, thousands of smart-phone flashlights lit up, transforming the amphitheater into a deep, large bowl brimming with twinkling starlight.

Other highlights: the irresistible Saturday in the Park, a version of Free that evoked Earth Wind & Fire and the Crusaders; Old Days, their adjacent-to-Beach Boys pop hit; and their cover of I’m A Man, which included a lengthy drum/percussion exhibition/showdown between Reyes Jr. and Ramon “Ray” Yslas.

They closed with a true showstopper: the cryptically titled but universally loved 25 or 6 to 4. As they did all night, the band re-created the song close to how it was recorded and been long remembered. Even Tony Obrohta’s guitar solo stayed within close proximity to the original by the late Terry Kath – one of the greatest guitar solos ever.

That song was recorded in 1969 but given the joyous uprising it incited among a crowd that tapped into three generations, it felt bereft of a time or era. Which was the lesson reaffirmed this evening: As time goes on, fans continue to realize how timeless and indelible this music has become.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed