Thursday, July 7, 2016

EXCLUSIVE - Chicago, the Band, in 2016: No Time For Rocking Chairs!

These are the best of times for Chicago, the legendary rock band with horns that some critics and casual observers have libelously described over the years as soft and bland. While it might seem unlikely that a rock group formed in 1967, nearly a half-century ago, could be on a major roll in what would seem to be the band's, um, golden years, consider these:

* In January, 2014, Chicago landed a prestigious spot at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards when the group's 1969 debut album “Chicago Transit Authority” was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. On the CBS telecast, Chicago got the chance to turn unwitting millennials on to three of its classics: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" and "Beginnings" from that first album, and "Saturday in the Park," the Beatlesesque charmer from Chicago V. 

* A few months after the 2014 Grammy gig, Chicago released "Now," also known as Chicago XXXVI, a contemporary, high-energy record filled with the dynamic, melodic songwriting and horn-infused rock and soul that have identified every Chicago record since the first. The album, which was almost entirely recorded on the road during the band's 2013 American tour, doesn't contain any instant classics, but it’s filled with great hooks, stellar musicianship and those immediately recognizable horns. 

* In April, 2016, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, a spectacular and exhaustive new documentary on the band, won three awards at the 10th Annual Fort Myers Beach Film Festival. 

* And that same month, in what is easily the biggest news of the band’s storied career, Chicago was tardily awarded the much-deserved honor of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with such artists as Deep Purple, Cheap Trick and Steve Miller.

Yes, it's a heady time for the band, whose four gracefully aging original members have each soundly rejected the idea of resting on their laurels or sitting in their rocking chairs. Lee Loughnane, Chicago’s tireless co-founder, superb trumpet player and consummate gentleman who also writes great songs when the muse visits ("Call on Me," "Together Again"), told The Reno Dispatch this week"It was incredible to be honored by the Hall of Fame and to be included with our peers, past, present and future. Now we’re continuing on with the career as we did the day before the honor.”

Sweet Redemption

Most Chicago loyalists were resigned to the idea that Chicago was never going to be enshrined into rock's hall. The irony of the band's induction was almost too sweet for Chicago fans to savor. After all, the rock hall’s warlord is Jann Wenner, publisher and editor of Rolling Stone, whose pretentious rock crits/twits have never given a Chicago album a decent review.

But even Wenner and his minions couldn't ignore the greatness and staying power of this band, or the passion of its fans, who stormed the Hall and delivered more than 36 million online votes.

It was a populist explosion, a real rock-and-roll moment for a band that is considered by some a middle-of-the-road ballads band but which in reality is a high-energy, guitar-driven, horn-punctuated group that creatively carves its horn harmonies into rock and features heavy doses of R&B and jazz. 

If you've not seen this band perform live, don't even try to dispute this. The ballads are nice, they pay the bills. But in concert, the powerful, up-tempo stuff is what makes Chicago Chicago!

It would probably choke some clueless naysayers to learn that in the early days, the band, who appear on Friday, July 8 at the Events Center at Harrah's Resort Southern California in Northeast San Diego County, only got airplay on alternative FM stations.

The band was also quite politically subversive (very anti-war and anti-Nixon), and had one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time on its roster. That would be Terry Kath, who sadly died in a shooting accident in 1978. One of classic rock's seminal but glaringly underrated guitarists, Kath got the attention of none other than Jimi Hendrix when Chicago opened for the rock legend not long before Woodstock. 

Hendrix said Kath was a better guitar player than him. High praise, indeed. Kath also sang like Ray Charles and had a rough-hewn charisma. The surviving six original members of Chicago all pretty much agree that Kath was the heart and soul of the band in the early days. Appropriately, Kath's daughter Michelle Sinclair was on stage when the band was inducted into the rock hall.

But as great as Terry was, Chicago's greatest appeal from the beginning are the songs themselves. It isn't often acknowledged, but the greatest thing about Chicago, from day one, has been the songwriting, namely that of Robert Lamm and James Pankow, with some great help from Peter Cetera and Kath.

Lamm alone is one of the finest songwriters of the rock era. His impossibly diverse and prolific catalogue includes “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “Dialogue,” “Wake up Sunshine,” “Listen,” “All is Well,” “Hollywood,” “Another Rainy Day in New York City,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Free”  and “25 or 6 to 4”. Lamm's also released multiple outstanding solo albums, including his finest work, “Subtlety and Passion.”

Pankow is responsible for the band’s hard-driving jazz-rock masterpiece, “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” a suite in several parts that produced such songs as “Make Me Smile,” "Colour My World” and “Now More Than Ever.”

Chicago Never Really Went Soft

Chicago's move to a more polished, commercial sound in the 80's, a business decision that elicited mixed feelings from the original members, especially Lamm, and from some fans, has been described by some as doing permanent harm to the group’s credibility. But that’s nonsense. The truth is, when Chicago brought in power-pop producer David Foster and adopted a more adult-contemporary radio vibe, it did nothing less than save the group.

Sure, it demoted the horn section and alienated some of the diehards that still longed for the Kath-influenced jams and blue-collar grit. But with this move the band found a new audience, a new generation of music fans that enabled the Chicago brand to stay on the shelves.

In defense of that era, it produced some tremendous songs, including "Hard to Say I'm Sorry.” Look, if Aerosmith can get away with a blatantly commercial, mainstream power ballad like “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” without losing its rock cred’, and the Beach Boys can record the schlocky "Kokomo," then Chicago can sure as hell record a nice song like "Hard Habit to Break" or “You’re the Inspiration” without being tarred and feathered by music critics.

And make no mistake: the band in concert in 2016 rivals the original band in 1969. The legendary three-piece horn section is still intact. The vocals are actually stronger. And the musicianship, save Kath, is better. Keith Howland, Chicago's lead guitarist, is a world-class musician whose solos will still melt your face. Chicago remains one of the best live acts in the business. Anyone who doesn't think Chicago is still a great rock and roll band just hasn't been paying attention.

Good Reunions & Bad Blood

At the Rock Hall of Fame ceremony, the visibly grateful four original members still in the band --  Loughnane, Walter Parazaider (Sax and flute), Pankow (Trombone) and Lamm (keyboards and co-lead vocals) -- were joined by fellow original member Danny Seraphine, arguably the best drummer of the rock era, whose enthusiastic, F-bomb-filled speech was one of the night's memorable moments. He was clearly psyched to be back with his old bandmates.

Danny was fired by the band. The reasons differ depending on who you ask. It was great to see him playing again. No drummer in rock has better chops than Seraphine. No one. Danny was appropriately joined in the rock hall gig by Chicago's current drummer, Tris Imboden, a tremendously accomplished musician himself.

The only surviving founding member of Chicago who chose not to attend the rock hall event was Peter Cetera (co-lead vocals, bass), who left the band in 1986 to pursue what has been a very successful solo career. I like Cetera as an artist and person, always have always will.

But it's not a huge surprise that Peter stayed home. He's a multi-talented artist and a huge part of Chicago's legacy who sang many of its finest songs ("25 or 6 to 4," "Feeling Stronger Every Day"). He's also a hugely underrated bass player. But Peter is bitter. He'd already refused to let VH1 use the songs he wrote while he was a member of Chicago for that network's documentary on the band. But the Rock Hall snub was the last straw for many of Chicago’s stalwart fans.

I don’t know Peter personally, I’ve not interviewed him the way I have various other members of the band. But Peter’s psychology is certainly a factor in all this. Cetera evolved during his years in Chicago from a wonderfully talented but rather pudgy, shy and reluctant performer to a slick, confident, handsome frontman.

The transformation was rather startling, and undoubtedly good for Peter’s self-esteem. He gained so much more confidence as his songs -- ballads, mostly -- became for a time what the public identified as the definitive Chicago song. It really all started with "If You Leave Me Now," the band's Grammy winning monster soft-rock hit in 1976. But neither that song nor those subsequent 80’s Cetera ballads were actually what the band was about. 

People began lumping Chicago into the same pile as Air Supply. If Peter had stayed, Chicago would have probably dissolved.

But it’s nonetheless a shame that he declined to appear with his former bandmates just one more time at the rock hall ceremony. It would have pleased millions of fans who've been hoping to see this reunion for 30 years.

The good news is that Chicago today is a fine-tuned machine. The band has never sounded better, and got a huge boost when Lou Pardini replaced the departing Bill Champlin in 2009. Champlin is a great talent, as well, but his stage presence had become increasingly sullen and sour. Lou is a breath of fresh air.

As we chronicled here in 2013, Pardini has a winning stage presence and brings with him a singular musical gift and long track record of success as a studio musician, singer and songwriter. Among other great tunes, Pardini wrote “Just to See Her” for Smokey Robinson, which earned the Motown legend a Grammy. Lou’s smooth stamp is blessedly all over the band’s Now” record.

Finally, the Definitive Chicago Doc'

As I mentioned briefly above, the new documentary, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, is an emotional, wildly entertaining, warts-and-all account of the band that originated in 1967 in founding member Parazaider's Windy City basement. 

The film, which is packed with vintage film clips and photos, is compelling, funny, nostalgic, and heartbreaking. It's exceptionally well directed, a shining moment for gifted young filmmaker Peter Pardini, who, yes, is Lou's nephew. But that family connection only made it harder for him to convince the band to let him in. That is, until they saw his work. 

As Peter Pardini told The Reno Dispatch, the film is far from the whitewash some might expect.

"It doesn't brush over anything that's maybe deemed unpleasant," he said. "It's not the puff piece some people on Facebook are so sure it's going to be. We couldn't help it if certain people wouldn't agree to be interviewed. It was my job to tell the story with or without everyone's voice and I think people are going to be happy with how honest the film is.

Indeed, the movie doesn't tread lightly recounting the rampant drug use in the band back in the 1970's, or the tragic and untimely death of Kath, who shot himself accidentally while foolishly messing with a gun he thought was not loaded. The film also takes a very hard look at some of the business dealings of James William Guercio, the band's producer for the first decade who brought the band from Chicago to Hollywood to record the first record.

The only other legit documentary done on Chicago is VH1's "Behind the Music" piece in 2000. But, Peter Pardini said, that film brushed over important topics.

Even though there's the obvious time constraint of an hour-long show, I thought it mishandled important topics, and cheapened its dealing with Terry's death,” he said. “I wanted to make sure this documentary wasn't overly edited and wasn't just a clip show of Chicago's greatest hits but rather showed a group of brothers who happened to make great music."

Pardini, who this week exclusively provided The Reno Dispatch with an all-new version of the film that addresses the hall of fame induction, said he was determined to capture on film the musical contribution this band has made over the last half century. And what a contribution it has been. 

Nobody Does it Better

Seeing Chicago in concert never gets old, because they never get old. A tireless outfit that still clearly loves to perform for its fans, Chicago has never stopped touring since its inception 49 years ago. Unbelievably, the guys have not taken a single year off the road.

The current American tour is selling out everywhere, and fresh off a hugely successful three-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl over the Fourth of July weekend, they roll into the Events Center at Harrah's Resort Southern California on Friday night.

It's a terrific venue for Chicago. Perfect size (2,200 seats), and state-of-the-art acoustics. Artists ranging from The Killers to Willie Nelson to Heart to Blondie have graced the Events Center stage, and we're doubling up at Harrah's this week: seeing the Bryan Adams show there tonight and Chicago on Friday.

Who will you see on the stage? The present incarnation of Chicago still includes four founding members, including the famous horn section of Loughnane (trumpet), Pankow (trombone) and Parazadier (sax and flute), and keyboardist and co-lead singer Lamm. 

Other current members include Pardini (keyboards, co-lead vocals), Howland, Imboden, Walfredo Reyes Jr. (percussion), and Jason Scheff (bass, co-lead vocals). Scheff, however, is currently taking a short break from the tour. His replacement, Jeff Coffey, is doing an amazing job filling in. He has a very strong, distinctive and pitch-perfect tenor rock voice. He has stepped into this daunting role effortlessly. Coffey, who is an Owen Wilson lookalike, is handsome, amiable, and very talented. Bottom line: if you’ve never seen a Chicago concert, go! You will not be disappointed. And if you have seen a Chicago concert, go! You know you will not be disappointed.