Friday, September 16, 2011

Wake Up Sunshine

Last night at what the tour shirt calls "Napa Valley" I saw the long running horn rock band Chicago. As I've written before, I was a big fan of Chicago in the 80s. Those Peter Cetera / David Foster ballads were works of art to me. During that decade I saw Chicago a total of 5 times (well, one was in 1990 so technically 4 times) and they often delivered a polished set of slow songs and mildly energetic rock. Not having seen them in twenty years I went into the show with modest expectations. These guys have been on the road just about every year for almost as long as I've been alive, figured they must be tired by now. I had a slight fear they might do what I saw on the Chicago 19 tour and lazily phone in their performance (they covered some horn parts with synthesizer that night!). But it was a show at a local intimate venue called the Uptown so it sounded like it might be an enjoyable night.

We had great seats in the third row. One thing about the Uptown, when it gets crowded it gets warm in there and I was pretty exhausted from the week to start with so I got a bit drowsy. Opening act Dave Sheil hit it off with the audience delivering a warm set of friendly James Taylor styled soft rock. I personally can't give an objective opinion of Sheil's talents since I cannot stand James Taylor's music. But I will say what he does, he seems to do well and won the crowd over with his earnest personality.

About a half hour later Chicago took the stage with a noticeable change in positioning the players from any other time I had seen the Chi-town pop rockers. Their normal set up throughout the 80s was bassist/vocalist center stage, horn section kinda off to the side, drums rear center flanked by keyboards on both sides. Here the horn section stood front and center at the opening and the bassist/vocalist was moved to the right. The audience was more excited than I had seen for any other Chicago concert I'd been to. I didn't pay close attention to the set list so the order of these songs were probably a little different than what I'm writing past the first few tunes. So what I remember went:

Ballet For A Girl From Buchanon (includes Make Me Smile and Colour My World) / Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? / Dialogue Pts 1 & 2 / Alive Again / Call On Me / Old Days / Along Comes A Woman / Wake Up Sunshine / If You Leave Me Now / I've Been Searchin So Long / Christmas Tree Song / Baby What A Big Surprise / Hard Habit To Break / You're The Inspiration / Beginning / I'm A Man / drum solo / Street Player / Just You N Me / Saturday In The Park / Hard To Say I'm Sorry - Get Away / last part of Feelin Stronger Every Day

encore: Free / 25 or 6 to 4

I've only heard the full "Ballet" live once, on the Chicago 17 tour, and I loved it. So I really liked that they played it with all the different sections. The switch to moving the horn section to the front instantly paid off as woodwind / sax man Walt Parazaider worked the crowd more than any of the band's front men ever had. Tag teaming with trumpeter Lee Loughnane (who took a surprisingly good lead vocal turn on "Colour My World") the horn section stepped ahead of the singers in firing up the audience with dynamic stage presence and constant directions to clap your hands.

I figured there would be more emphasis on 70s material than when I had seen them last, Chicago did not disappoint following up with "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?". Keyboardist / vocalist Robert Lamm has an unbelieveably healthy head of hair for his age, I was like "Damn!". His voice has held up surprisingly well too.

"Dialogue Pts 1 & 2" was next, there was one semester of college where I played this song a lot (around the time of the first Iraq War) so I dug it. Because he was included in the group photographs I thought trombonist James Pankow would be there but instead it was a guy I think he was named Antonio Velasco. Or maybe it was Alberto. Anyway, in addition to doing a fine job there was a noticeable change in the horn section dynamic. Velasco liked to clown around which fit in with Parazaider and Loughnane's get down and have fun approach.

Finally got to hear some late 70s Chicago live with "Alive Again", bassist/vocalist Jason Scheff finally getting a lead turn. During this and "Dialogue" his voice didn't come through that well and I thought maybe he had lost it (Scheff would sound better later in the show). Not that it mattered too much 'cause now the man has groupies, women bouncing and grinding begging for his attention. I had no idea Scheff had gained such a following. And I was surprised Scheff could see them, with a switch to a wireless headset his physical approach to singing seemed different. His eyes shut tight, Scheff would concentrate on his vocal while rocking back and forth like a man on a roller coaster.

Other songs I had not heard live before were the mid 70s hits "Call On Me" and "Old Days". Always liked "Call On Me" and the bongo attack gave more attention to the "pixie" like percussionist Drew Hester. Watching this guy in action was sort of like watching a mix of Glee and Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream. To say he was fired up is an understatement. The newest member Lou Pardini got the lead vox nod and I gotta say he is a real good singer. Nails that rough soul voice perfectly. "Old Days" gave guitarist Keith Howland a shot at lead singing (like Journey, Chicago has become a big pass the mic kinda band).

After stating to the audience that you would hear a lot of music, the 80s made their first appearance with "Along Comes A Woman". It was hard not to miss Peter Cetera as this is such a Cetera kind of jam and I was surprised that the set list had only one post Cetera song (and that was a Christmas song). In fact, every original song from the Jason Scheff era was ignored including Top 10 hits "Will You Still Love Me", "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love", "You're Not Alone", "What Kind Of Man Would I Be" and the #1 hit of 1989 "Look Away".

The band went deep for an album cut, the pleasant "Wake Up Sunshine". It's funny, with all these hits it's this song that is stuck in my head afterwards.

Robert Lamm gave an explanatory monologue for the next part, seems you can go to Chicago's web site and bid in an auction to sing with Chicago. A lady who I had heard won with a $1500 bid walked up to sing "If You Leave Me Now". No need to criticize the lady, she was just "living her dream" and for laying out that kind of cash why not?

The band went into "(I've Been) Searchin So Long" and Jason Scheff hit his vocal stride here. He dug in deep to hit the gospelish ending with some authority, inspiring the groupies to grind and bounce away. Lamm plugged the band's upcoming Christmas CD (I think their second one) as Howland took lead vocal again on a rockabily tinged "Rockin Round The Christmas Tree".

It was a Cetera era big ballad trifecta starting with "Baby What A Big Surprise" next. Watching trumpeter Lee Loughnane blare his instrument around Scheff while he sang was pretty funny. Scheff and Pardini made a good combo on the power ballad classic "Hard Habit To Break" and guiarist Howland got to shine on an extended solo at the end of "You're The Inspiration".

Robert Lamm seemed to spend a lot of time in the background so it was noticeable when he took center stage for his warm fuzzy classic "Beginnings". Then the band got into serious jam mode as they motored through their cover of "I'm A Man" culminating in an awesome drum / percussion solo with Tris Imboden and Hester. The audience started to go nuts at this point...until Chicago pulled out their forgotten disco miss "Street Player". As a fan I got a kick out of hearing live the song that was said to cause the band such embarassment back in da day. But it stopped the audience dead in their tracks.

The sunny 70's continued with "Just You N Me" and "Saturday In The Park". In a long standing set list tradition (at least what I recall in the 80s) "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" closed the main concert part out with a lead in to the ramped up "Get Away". "Get Away" shifted into the last part of "Feelin Stronger Every Day" with Howland again getting lead singer nod on that part. The audience was psyched now leading to a brief break before encore time.

One of my favorite Chicago songs is "Free" so it was a pleasure to see the encore lead off with this jam, even if it was played a little slower. Then it was time to close the show down with "25 or 6 to 4" burning away.

The other five times I saw Chicago the closest they had to this type of intensity was on the Chicago 17 tour just as "Hard Habit To Break" was climbing the charts. But I had never seen them like this, the old guys threw down. As Parazaider did his one handed sax solo while high fiving the front row it was clear that Chicago tours like a never ending retirement party. If it wasn't for the absence of Cetera, it was the best Chicago concert I had ever seen. One last note, thank you for the pictures to my wonderful wife.



Anonymous said...

My wife and I were also at the Napa concert, the above description is bang on. A very high energy enjoyable evening! Just curious why James Pankow was not performing that night?

Mr. Mike said...

I'm curious too, when I try to look up online information there is no indication that Pankow isn't there. Not sure if Velasco was covering for just that show or if it's ongoing, thought it was weird but Velasco did well.