Anniversaries – Chicago at 50

5 June 2017, Whisky a Go Go, Los Angeles, CA

This year Chicago is marking 50 years since it formed. I was hoping for a seriously celebratory tour, or a handful of extra spectacular concerts with special guests, perhaps even – foolish fantasiser am I – a one-off reunion with former members. But no, they just decided to go on the road with the Doobie Brothers again, because it’s become standard now for Chicago to tour in a double bill each year, be it with the Doobies, Earth Wind & Fire, REO Speedwagon or some other classic rock band.

The idea of that bored the heck out of me, and last year’s show at the Hollywood Bowl was so definitively great, so I had resigned myself to just not seeing them at all, perhaps not ever again. I’d decided I could live with that. But then that wonderful satellite radio network SiriusXM organised a special invitation only event for subscribers at the famed Whisky a Go Go, for only a couple hundred people, and I knew that I needed to be there.

Not every band can recall the exact date and time it started business, as such, but Chicago can. It was February 15, 1967, and the original six members – Walter Parazaider, Terry Kath, Danny Seraphine (those three having started out together in the Missing Links), James Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Robert Lamm – convened in Walt’s apartment and they all shook hands, agreed to make music together ’til death did them part, and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that Walt’s mother made them, so Lee recalled in an interview ten years later. Before the end of that year, Peter Cetera had joined them as well. They were originally called The Big Thing and they played around the clubs of Chicago until producer James William Guercio found them and decided they should relocate to Los Angeles to hone their playing and songwriting. They moved to LA in 1968, renamed themselves Chicago Transit Authority, and set about turning themselves into the cutting edge rock band with horns that would go on to record one of the most audacious debut albums in rock music history. Before they went to New York in 1969 to record that self-titled album, they played at the Whisky a Go Go as a support act for the likes of Velvet Underground, Lee Michaels, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin; it was where the LA in-crowd first noticed CTA, and so playing a show here to mark the 50th anniversary of the band was an inspired idea.

But the lineup today bears little resemblance to the band that treaded those boards so many years ago. And as much as I like the new tenor singer/bass player who fills the Cetera parts – Jeff Coffey – and have grown fond of other “new” members that have been in the lineup for longer than the departed originals ever were (Tris Imboden on drums at 27 years, Keith Howland on guitar at 22 years) and can for the most part tolerate Terry Kath’s vocals being sung by Lou Pardini, probably more than I was able to tolerate the vocals of Bill Champlin, his predecessor for 28 years, it’s sometimes hard to watch this band whittle itself down. Walt made his last live appearance with the band at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction more than a year ago and has now permanently retired, with the fine woodwind player, Ray Hermann, now no longer considered a “sub”. So that leaves just three originals. Three green bottles standing on the wall, I hear myself say.

The phenomenally brilliant Jimmy Pankow will play on stage with this band for as long as his legs will support him and those buff arms will slide his trombone along to the songs that he created – “Just You ‘n’ Me”, “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” and the ever magnificent suite “Ballet For A Girl From Buchannon” among others – he just isn’t going to quit. Nor is Lee Loughnane, who loves, just loves, to play on stage, to tour, to be the band’s archivist and producer and historian and whatever else keeps him excited and clinging on. And Robert Lamm, who composed most of Chicago’s early landmark songs – “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is”, “Beginnings”, “Listen”, “25 or 6 to 4”, “Free”, “Saturday In The Park” etc etc etc – and whose baritone was warm and heartfelt until it started thinning out recently, stays on also, although he often seems ambivalent about that, and that’s a whole other story I won’t go into right here.

At the Whisky a Go Go the other night, Robert stood in a strange darkened corner behind his keyboard for much of the show, sang in a tired, thin voice, and did not say anything particularly profound about where they were and why they were there, which I thought he might do. Jimmy hooted and hollered, as he often does, and did make some remarks about how special it was to be on that old stage once more. Lee beamed with his trademark excitement. They all looked happy, they all had their best stage smiles on, they performed well enough, and they played all the usual hits, although a shorter than usual set as it was being recorded for broadcast on SiriusXM. And I was happy to be there at such a small, exclusive and historical event. I was happy to have my laminate. I was glad to take away a poster. But I didn’t go away feeling like the 50th anniversary of this band had been honoured as gloriously as it could have been. And that could just be me being ambivalent about Chicago after so many years. And that is also another story. For now, here are the pictures from the Whisky.


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