Chicago July 4 Spectacular

3 July 2016, Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA

Another year, another Chicago concert. Except this one was different. Reinvigorated and bolstered by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three months ago, Chicago sold out three nights at the Hollywood Bowl over the July 4 weekend. Along with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and its jovial conductor Thomas Wilkins, and the US Air Force Band of the Golden West, no less, plus fireworks, there was plenty of colour and ceremony and spectacle to go with those classic Chicago songs I’ve heard and seen them play each year for a while now. Due to the format of the Hollywood Bowl program, this was a truncated set list, but they played as well as ever, and while my view from the front row (and you’ve never seen a show at the Hollywood Bowl until you’ve seen it from the front row) did not detract from the power of the sound, I couldn’t see much of the orchestra behind them until I took a walk back to watch the fireworks later on.

The main things to note this time were, first, that the band’s founder, woodwind player Walt Parazaider, who minimizes his performance schedule due to his health, usually plays at the big city shows – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – but he was absent this time. Not just the night I went, but for all three shows; his regular sub Ray Hermann was listed in the printed program. That does not bode well for seeing much more of him in whatever future life Chicago has, and I wonder if his emotional speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was his swan song. I hope not; it never feels quite right when Walt is not on stage, although Ray is an energetic, note-perfect replacement.

The second thing to note was the other replacement, Jeff Coffey, standing in over the entire summer tour for Jason Scheff, who is on leave for the first time since he replaced Peter Cetera in 1985 – yes, more than 30 years ago. For all those years it’s been difficult for any Chicago purist to reconcile the sweet guy and great bass player that Jason is with a voice that is mainly unbearable to hear. Jeff Coffey, on the other hand, who was not even introduced by any of the original members – as is their wont to pretend the band never changes before our eyes, which it does constantly – was absolutely brilliant. His voice is very close to Cetera’s original, and he sings all the high notes clearly and effortlessly and quite joyfully. He also happens to be the spitting image of actor Owen Wilson, and that’s not such a bad thing, really. It was nice, anyway, glorious in fact, to hear Jimmy Pankow’s most famous love song, “Just You ‘n’ Me”, sung so beautifully.

And speaking of Jimmy Pankow, my obsession with photographing him and his trombone persists. I don’t know what it is, other than that man and his instrument (brass, that is) are joined in such a way that it seems like art to me, pure beauty, sight and sound combined. I have loved watching him perform live since I first saw them, also in the front row, in Sydney in January 1979, and I will continue to do so until one of us leaves this mortal coil. Presumably him first, but that’s out of my control.

Lee Loughnane and Robert Lamm, the other two originals still on stage, also played just fine. Lamm’s voice has lost a lot of its rich, warm, soulful baritone quality, sounding tired and thin, but at nearly 72 he still cuts a stylish figure on stage. And Lee is just the happiest chappie in concert; I am sure he lives for these performances. After all, as he said in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech, his ex-wives (four, but who’s counting?) keep him on the road, and he’s thankful because he loves it.

The Hollywood Bowl never fails to disappoint as a live venue and each time I go there I am reminded of why I love being in Los Angeles, where the music I love the most still matters and can be heard in such iconic amphitheatres. And on this occasion I was delighted to be with my friend Nanette, who is the most knowledgeable and loving fan of Chicago’s original, and long passed, guitarist Terry Kath, and who never thought she would want to see a concert without him there, and whose emotional responses to what she saw and heard made it extra special for me.

So bring on 2017 and Chicago’s 50th anniversary – wherever they decide to play to celebrate it, I’ll be there.

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