Thursday, 7 July 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #8 – Chicago at the Hammersmith Apollo

Like Toto, Chicago are a band who were once undoubtedly #1 with me (from my eighth birthday, to be precise) but have gradually slipped down the list over the years. Still, the very sight of the famous Coca-Cola-inspired logo that has been their visual trademark for over forty years remains enough to make me break out in a grin, so the news that they’d be playing the same venue as Toto albeit ten days later, was music to my ears (to coin a phrase).

While a band that formed in 1967 can be justifiably proud to still contain four original members within its ranks, in reality having all of them perform together on any given night has been the exception rather than the rule for a good few years now. Keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm is almost guaranteed to be there, but getting all three members of the famed horn section is a little like playing a fruit machine – one is easy, two common, but three...unlikely. So it was here with Sax-man Walt Parazaider missing in action (a disappointment for me, while he’s never really been a key figure in Chi-history I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Walt) and ably subbed by Ray Hermann (I’m not generally one to comment on people’s appearances, but his ‘Blonde Elvis’ hairstyle will give me nightmares for months to come I’m sure – thankfully his playing gave me something more pleasant to concentrate on...hahaha, sorry Ray!). Thankfully both Jimmy Pankow and Lee Loughnane were present and correct, and at the top of their game – Loughnane in particular impressed throughout, not just with his trumpeting, which seemed even better than ever before, but also with his ever-present wide, infectious grin, not to mention his lead vocal on Colour My World – I would have liked to hear him take lead on something else as well, although obviously it’s a bit tricky to sing and play trumpet at the same time, and what would Chicago be without that famous horn section at the centre of its sound? (Oh wait, I know this one, an 80s ballad band...)

As the infamous (and belatedly excellent) Chicago at Carnegie Hall demonstrates Lamm was always the most consistent live vocalist within the band, despite – or perhaps because of – being the least showy. Even today, when the band is virtually populated top to bottom with very able vocalists, he has that extra something that makes him stand out – and there’s more to it than just being the only original singer left (more or less anyway).

(Half of) Chicago in action (L-R: Ray Hermann, Lee Loughnane, Tris Imboden, Robert Lamm)

But special mention has to go to Jason Scheff, who handled the lion’s share of the lead vocals, and sounded better than ever. He wasn’t quite perfect – the additional ‘woos!’ on Alive Again were ill-advised and he went into a slightly-odd falsetto during a couple of numbers, but these moments were the exceptions, overall  he delivered ace after ace. As for his bass playing – well, I’ve always known he’s good, but like Loughnane he seems to have reached a new level recently, his playing on Dialogue, to give just one example, was phenomenal. 

A couple of significant (and permanent) changes have occurred since I first/last saw Chicago seven years ago – the lineup has expanded to include percussionist Drew Hester (a full-time role following his deputising on drums for an ill Tris Imboden a year or two back), but more significantly has seen Bill Champlin replaced by Lou Pardini on keyboards and vocals. The way Champlin was let go after 28 years service left a sour taste in the mouth, but that’s not to say I disapprove of the end result – Pardini seems a much more natural fit with this incarnation of the band, and ably took on vocals previously handled by Champlin, Terry Kath and Peter Cetera ably, without sounding – or attempting to sound - like any of them.

This gig was always promoted as a ‘Greatest Hits’ show, so anybody expecting an adventurous setlist would have been a) insane and b) disappointed, but it has to be remembered Chicago did have an absolute shedload of hits, and the vast majority have stood the test of time very well – and they did at least throw the long-term fans a bone or two - with the wonderful early album cut Wake Up Sunshine, for example. The early part of the set concentrated on the more uptempo numbers from their catalogue, beginning with the full Ballet for a Girl in Buchanon suite (In 2004 they played only the ‘singles’, i.e. Make Me Smile and momentum-killer CMW), and including the likes of Alive Again, Old Days and (a surprise to me) Along Comes a Woman. Robert Lamm jokingly introduced If You Leave Me Now as the song that came along and ruined everything for them (It’s funny ‘cause it’s true...), which precipitated a mid-set glut of ballads, broken only by the uptempo latin-funk madness of Mongonucleosis, an instrumental that is strangely likeable despite officially being the most irritating piece of music ever recorded. Needless to say every one of the big ballads went down a storm, with Hard Habit to Break possibly getting the biggest reception of all.

More variety returned after Lamm delivered the band intros – proving again that singing or speaking his voice is amongst the easiest to listen to on the planet – with Beginnings (still, to my mind, the greatest love song ever recorded, and probably the best Chicago song too) and I’m a Man (complete with extended drum/percussion ‘duet’) highest highs of the highlights, before a suitably slow-build-to-rousing finale of Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Get Away/Feeling Stronger Every Day before the traditional high octane encore of Free and 25 Or 6 to 4 finished the night in fine style.

Chicago have been infrequent visitors to the UK, but hopefully the deserved rapturous reception the (not quite full) Hammersmith audience provided will convince them to come back for more soon. Even more hopefully, this lineup – on stage at least as vital as they’ve been in a very long time - will pull finger and make that next great Chicago album (but instead they’re putting out their third Christmas album later this year...ho-hum...). Oh well, you can’t have everything, and when Loughnane stated early on that they’d be playing songs from the beginning right up to ‘where we are now, in the present’ who would have guessed that for Chicago the present is 1984? Mind you, perhaps they’re not the only ones stuck in the mid-80s – clad in my Journey t-shirt, I was approached by a chap before the show who hadn’t realised they were ‘back’ and then basically asked if Steve Perry was with them...I had to laugh and reply that that was like somebody asking us if Peter Cetera was still with Chicago. It was only later that I worried that he’d wandered off wondering what on Earth I was on about...hope he wasn’t too disappointed...I certainly wasn’t. (9/10).

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