Monday, August 24, 2015

Make Me Smile: Sunday in the Pavilion with Chicago -- Chicago / Ravinia Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Isabella Nanni
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
August 23, 2015 (also played 8/22)

The band Chicago's origins--like my own--date to the late 1960s on the north side of its namesake city.

But by the time I was born at Weiss  Hospital in October 1968, the eight bandmates--six of whom met at DePaul University, with four remaining in the current lineup--had departed for Los Angeles, while still initially monikered The Big Thing.

The band would soon rechristen themselves Chicago Transit Authority, release a self-titled debut album and--under threat of legal action by the actual CTA--shorten their name to Chicago.

Though some members have changed over the years--I still recall hearing the tragic news of guitarist Terry Kath accidentally killing himself with a gun in 1978--Chicago has continuously been a recording and touring entity, with a number of ubiquitous classics I couldn't help but know and love ("Saturday in the Park," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," "25 or 6 to 4"), a minor hit that has always held a special place because I had the 45 as a kid ("Alive Again") and a spate of schmaltzy pop hits generally corresponding to my high school years ("Hard to Say I'm Sorry," "Hard Habit to Break," "You're the Inspiration," "Look Away").

But though I have attended over 650 concerts by hundreds of different acts, mostly in my hometown--having lived in the metropolitan area my whole life except for 3 college years 50 miles west in DeKalb and 3 years a bit further west in Los Angeles--until Sunday night at Ravinia in Highland Park, I never had seen Chicago.

I've undoubtedly had numerous opportunities, and likely should have caught one of Chicago's co-headlining jaunts with Earth, Wind and Fire in recent years, but while I've never turned down a specific chance to attend a gig, the truth is that it's hard for me to say I've ever been that much of a fan.

I have never owned a Chicago album in any format and other than the unavoidable hits, have only known a small fraction of their vast output. Until studying up for the show, I don't know that I've ever even looked up any of their songs on Spotify except maybe "Alive Again" for old times sake and "Saturday in the Park" on some 4th of July. (This was my Spotifamilization primer.)

Perhaps it was last year after they played Ravinia--a rather common venue--that I started to think of Chicago as a band I should see at least once, but even with a pair of weekend shows long on the 2015 schedule, I only got myself a ticket this past Friday.

And I acted largely because I found a $100 (+ fees) pavilion ticket on StubHub for just $29.

Thus, if you're hoping for this to be an expert review from a Chicago aficionado who knows every note from Chicago Transit Authority through Chicago XXXVI--though most Chicago albums are numerically named, there aren't really quite 36 of them--and "if so I can't imagine why," well, this won't be one.

Although original vocalist/keyboardist Robert Lamm still looks and sounds strong at 70 and founding saxophonist Walter Parazaider, trombonist James Pankow and trumpet player Lee Loughnane seemed to be having a heckuva time in powering Chicago's unique rock-with-brass soundscape, I certainly can't tell you how Chicago circa 2015 compares with any other incarnation over the past 48 years.

Part of the band himself since 1985, bassist Jason Scheff sings the Peter Cetera ballads admirably close to the originals, although these--including "If You Leave Me Now," a #1 hit in 1976--are far from my favorite kernels of the Chicago canon.

Knowing that Lamm is the only representative of the band's initial trio of vocalists (including Cetera and Kath), I liked it best when he was on lead vocals, and his take on "Beginnings"--playing acoustic guitar rather than his usual keyboards--was a definite highlight.

But with 9 musicians onstage, it was cool how Chicago rotated through lead vocalists, with keyboardist Lou Pardini handling most of the singing duties when Lamm and Scheff didn't, and the horn players and guitarist Keith Howland also taking turns at the mic.

"Questions 67 & 68" and "Dialogue (Part I & II)" sounded great early on, and I was thrilled to hear "Alive Again" after noticing it missing on some recent setlists. (It was played Saturday, which seems to have had the same set as Sunday. See Chicago's Ravinia setlist on

Along with songs already mentioned, other delights included "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon"--with "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World" inclusive in the suite--"Old Days," a propulsive extended take on Spencer Davis Group's "I'm A Man" and main set closer, "Feelin' Stronger Every Day."

With the pavilion crowd finally brought to its feet on the "Get Away" coda of "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" before "Saturday in the Park," they stayed that way for encores of "Free" and "25 or 6 to 4."

All told it was a generous nearly 3 hours worth of music, including a brief but nice opening set from solo songstress Isabella Nanni.

Chicago's diverse instrumentation, with not only brass but two (or more at times) drummer/percussionists--bongos included--sounded wonderful in full force, or even split up to highlight fine horn, drum and guitar solos.

There was nothing I didn't like, and especially at a bargain, my seat offered good comfort, sound and sightlines on a pleasant evening.

I've recently given a bit more thought to my distinctions between concerts I award @@@@, @@@@1/2 and @@@@@, with all representing shows I enjoyed and am glad to have witnessed. It's certainly not an exact science, but bestowing above @@@@ typically entails performances I would emphatically suggest others see and those by performers I can't wait to catch again.

Perhaps properly reflective of an act I've long neglected live, I found Chicago to deliver a show with a lot of fine music, well-played, but without quite the excitement of the very best concerts on my calendar.

As a first-time experience, I liked the show far more than not, but with all the revolving spotlight moments among the singers and players, there did seem to be something of a "by-the-book" sensibility to the proceedings, with nothing particularly special--save a few gracious mentions--for the city that bore the band and inspired its name.

Still, it was about time I got to Chicago.

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