Chicago – hard habit to break

3 March 2020, Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks, CA

I guess it’s just complicated. Like so many relationships in life. Relationships to family and loved ones, relationships to work and relationships to certain music. Music I love, musicians I am ambivalent about as time goes on.

As time goes on I realise just what you mean to me…

It’s hard not to throw in lyrics and even pun some when it comes to talking or writing about Chicago. When I wrote the long-winded epistle about the band in 2018 that I never published, one of my working titles was “Does anybody really know what band it is, does anybody really care?” The catalogue is so vast, the lyrics so pervasive, there’s always something pertinent to quote with a quip. But also the compositions from the old days are still musically riveting. And the three remaining original members’ resilience and stamina and, above all, unashamed self-confidence after 53 years of touring, are so evident that maybe it’s just easier for me to surrender and forgive myself for the fickle, confused emotional state I have been in over this band, and ultimately settle on a level of acceptance and detachment that enables me to revisit them even after insisting I never would again.

In short, I am not thrilled about their current line-up and when I saw them two years ago I was sufficiently disappointed by what I saw and heard to make that decision and believe I could stick to it.

But they really are a hard habit to break.

Being without you
Takes a lot of getting used to
Should learn to live with it
But I don’t want to

I changed my mind about seeing them again last week when the opportunity for a really good seat popped up for their annual Thousand Oaks gig. If anything, the seat was too good, too close. Next time – and yes, there might well be a next time – I think I want to sit further back and take it all in instead of being so in their faces. Then at least Robert Lamm can’t see me and throw his guitar pick directly at my head. Ouch.

This was a long and energetic show with a set list of hits and much-loved album cuts and I do respect them for offering such a full show musically. They started as usual with two songs from the Chicago Transit Authority album – “Introduction” and “Questions 67 & 68” – and they finished with “Free” from the third album and the iconic “25 or 6 to 4” from the second album and in between they performed, to varying degrees of mastery, songs from most of the albums up to the late eighties. I enjoyed hearing “Alive Again” from the Hot Streets (12th) album because that album marked a pivotal time in my earlier phase of Chicago fandom (it’s when I first met them). I always love hearing and watching them play the entire “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” suite, Jimmy Pankow’s great masterpiece from the second album, even if I believe Lamm should go back to singing “Colour My World” as he sounds more like Terry Kath than anyone else who has sung it including trumpet player Lee Loughnane, who’s been singing it in recent years.

I did not enjoy and I never enjoy the syrupy power ballads like “Look Away” and “You’re The Inspiration”, but I do love the original recording of the ballad that led to Chicago’s unintended focus on recording ballads – “If You Leave Me Now”. However I would be really glad if Chicago no longer performed “If You Leave Me Now” on stage, for numerous reasons, but mainly because of all the Peter Cetera songs this one has never sounded right without Cetera singing it, and now it sounds really wrong as delivered by the current lead singer, Neil Donell. Donell was brought into the band prior to the last time I saw them, on the basis of him being a Peter Cetera impressionist who can sing the power ballads, but I actually think Donell does a much better job of singing the rock songs than the ballads and he even impressed me with his vocals on “25 or 6 to 4” this time.

Indeed, the degree of mastery in Chicago’s live performance usually comes down to the vocals, because there is no disputing the musicianship, which is always top notch, whether it’s the original horn players, Pankow and Loughnane, who are still dazzling with their virtuosity, as is sub-turned-permanent member Ray Herrmann on woodwinds, or guitarist Keith Howland, who’s been with the band 25 years and plays Terry Kath’s licks better than just about anyone alive today possibly could, or Walfredo Reyes Jr. on drums, or the newer bass player and percussionist… they’re all fine. The music sounds good. But the singing can be very patchy with Chicago nowadays. Lamm’s voice seems to come and go. When it’s in form it’s pretty good for a 75-year old. When it’s out of form it’s just a shame, but it’s nice to see him still looking suave and seemingly engaged in what he is doing, and for whatever reasons he keeps doing it, I found myself glad to see him doing it again.

The highlight of the show for me was Lamm’s solo performance of “Take Me Back To Chicago”, which he admitted he had not written but when he sings it, he thinks of Terry Kath. From the 11th album, the song was written by founding drummer Danny Seraphine and Rufus keyboardist David “Hawk” Wolinski, and on the original recording Chaka Khan sang amazing backing vocals. It’s a gorgeous soulful song and the songwriters deserve credit, and I guess it doesn’t surprise me that Lamm did not at least give that credit, but I wish he had.

The band actually plays two Seraphine/Wolinksi compositions in their current show, the other being “Street Player” from the 13th album, but unlike the reverent on-stage references to Kath during the evening, Seraphine’s name is never mentioned, which is a shame, because he was as intrinsic to the original band and their musical output as Kath was, and because Danny is a great guy who deserves accolades, not disregard, no matter what happened 30 years ago when he was fired from the band. When they all turn up for the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony next month, I hope Danny is treated better than he was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But I digress.

There are some really cheesy visuals on the screen behind the band throughout the show. Very literal visuals. Pretty girls talking on mobile phones during “Call on Me”. Children playing in the park in the opening verse of “Make Me Smile”. A lighthouse shining its beacon across the way in the opening verse of “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long”. It’s kind of tacky and to me it devalues the potency of the songs that have always spoken for themselves. It’s difficult to avert my eyes from the silliness on screen but then I can point my camera lens at Pankow’s trombone and it makes me smile. And occasionally there are visuals that do work nicely, such as the pictures on screen during “Old Days” featuring early sepia-toned images of the Windy City, and archival photos of previous members of the band including Kath, Seraphine, Walt Parazaider, Laudir de Oliveira and Tris Imboden. Or the repeated projections of the Chicago band logo, to remind you who you’re watching in case you forgot because you don’t actually recognise most of the figures up on stage.

There has been much animosity and antagonism between personnel in the history of the band – it’s no secret, it was talked about in their authorised documentary – and I am not convinced that the current line-up is the happiest configuration they’ve had, but the music plays on and they do a good job of looking happy on stage for their audience and backstage for the photos that fans line up to have taken with them. I have never wanted the meet and greet fan-with-band photo and especially not now, as I honestly don’t know most of the guys in the band any more, but when I went back after this show, Keith said, “Come and do the photo.” So I did the photo. I think Lamm was looking down at my head from his riser behind me thinking, “Damn, I should have thrown that pick much harder at her.”

Having seen Chicago many dozens of times over the years, I’ll never fully embrace the way the line up of the band has evolved, but the 2018 show I saw and the subsequent two years away gave me such low expectations of how this might be that I found myself pleasantly surprised the other night. I didn’t hate it. I found some enjoyment in hearing the very early songs played live again, and I found myself thinking about the human beings that they are and feeling somewhat forgiving, or maybe just accepting, or at least letting go of the bad thoughts I’d had. Neil Donell has been possibly the most controversial addition to the band in its entire history and I think he sometimes fuelled the fire with things he said in interviews when he joined, but he is just doing a job he loves, singing music he loves, and earning an honest living doing so. Good for him. He might not be my favourite singer the band has had, but I’m done with feeling negative about it. I appreciate that for some of the very oldest songs Donell sings from way over to the side of the stage so it’s not even necessary to focus on him. The horns are usually front and centre, where they should be, and while it’s not anywhere near as grand as how the band sounded on the original recordings, or even just a few years ago at their amazing Hollywood Bowl show, it sounds better than no Chicago sound at all.

Just like Eagles post-Glenn Frey and Queen post-Freddie Mercury, a great band with a legacy of great music can and will go on in some form or another. For Chicago it’s not the authentic sound that a purist like me prefers, but it’s not nothing either. For more than 40 years it’s been an up and down, love and less-than-love relationship for me, for manifold reasons, but ultimately I am still a Chicago girl. A Chicago girl from Sydney living in LA who moved here because of my love for the music that bands like Chicago and the Eagles raised me on.

So I went along and took photos and sat down to write about them again. (Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.)

Take me back to Chicago, and lay my soul to rest.


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