When you put horns in a rock band, everything else gets amped waaaay up. We know this because we sat behind the yo-yoing knobs of the sound board at the Chicago concert at Wolf Trap on Monday night. Perhaps few in the graying crowd could tell, having long ago sacrificed an ear drum or two.
The band named for the Windy City might have blown the roof off of the Filene Center if not for its slatted sides letting their jubilant blasts from the past escape. Having met in 1967 at DePaul University in Chicago, four founding members remain — Robert. Lamm, Lee Loughnane, Jimmy Pankow and Walt Parazaider – all sexy sexagenarians, especially long trombonist Pankow.
The first standing ovation came not for any of the nine current powerhouse musicians but for a guest artist. For the fourth year, the band has teamed up with the American Cancer Society for a “Sing With Chicago” fundraiser, to honor breast cancer survivor Paqui Kelly, wife of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly. Monday night’s generous bid winner happened to be friend of guitarist Keith Howland, from his days at James Madison University – the lead singer of his first band, the Spark Plugs, who doused the ladies with a soulful “If You Leave Me Now.”
Chicago, equipped with its own fanfare and needing no introduction, still opened with “Introduction,” its first track from its Chicago Transit Authority debut album in 1969. The bulk of their two-set list sprung straight from that must-have double LP – “Dialogue” was especially eerie as its anti-war lyrics, alternating between rebellion and complacency, still resonate four decades on. Does anybody really know what year it is?
The band, of course, was forced to shorten its name to ‘Chicago’ for its second double album, known as “Chicago II,” after a legal dispute with the actual Chicago Transit Authority. Gotta be up on your Roman numerals to keep track, but they chugged along Monday against their Chicago logo backdrop, in a font strangely reminiscent of Coca-Cola, with occasional flashes of headlights and a non-stop string of hits. They cherry-picked from Chicago III to their surprisingly best-selling Chicago XVII, which oozed with syrupy Eighties-era ballads and which Monday’s crowd ate up.
When Chicago truly shines – no, gleams – is when they dig in to the old repertoire, their instrumental-charged, Santana-infected marathon stretches. “I’m a Man,” for instance churned with dirty organ, then descended into a percussive fest, with each band member playing blocks, sticks or tambourine, then exiting, until exuberant percussionist and conga player Walfredo Reyes Jr. and rip-roaring drummer Tris Imboden were left to face off. They wringed out from those toms a full range of ambient sound – from whale songs and rattlesnake hiss to the revving of road hogs and MORE COWBELL. Reyes even struck his noggin with his sticks at one point. In the end, the dueling drummers proved evenly matched.
Unfortunately, missing from the lineup is original bassist-lead vocalist Peter Cetera, who went solo 28 summers ago (he’s playing a one-night stand Singapore on Sept. 14). Cetera’s raucous and reedy tenor has been replaced by Jason Scheff’s gritted-teeth snivel, almost a mockery on such hits as “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” (Loughnane’s bugling solo saved the day), “You’re the Inspiration” and “Questions 67 and 68.” Only Scheff’s “Just You and Me” paid proper tribute with a pillowy groove. “Take Me As I Am,” Scheff’s first original hit with the band off of Chicago XVIII in 1986, was recast refreshingly in bluesy piano-bar style as he played alone onstage under a spotlight, his voice finally filling out missing harmonies with some gravelly, layered harmonics.
Thankfully it was the veterans handling vocals on some of the biggest hits of the night: Lamm punched out “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Saturday in the Park” to the audience’s fist-pumping metronome. A symphonic mash-up of “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World,” the original B-side to “Make Me Smile,” featured sultry vocals by Loughnane and the intoxicating flute solo by woodwinds master Parazaider, who also produced a killer soprano sax solo “Just You and Me.” Several times during the night, the rattatattat of a deliciously dissonant horn section (arrangements by Pankow) came synchronized with color-organ lighting effects against either a blood-red background, evoking gangster gunplay, or full-barrel fireworks. And when the seer-sucker giant American flag unfurled for the first encore, “Free,” you’d think it was the Fourth of July. And they saved the best for their last encore, the pulsating “25 or 6 to 4.”
The biggest guns of the evening had to have been Pankow, strutting and stripping down to show off, well, big guns and getting in every last lick. Not to be overlooked was the well-coiffed Lou Pardini, adding backbone on vocals and keyboard. In all, a mind-blowing trip down memory lane. Look for them on HBO, as they’re featured in Larry David’s new movie Clear History, which debuted Aug. 10th. Lucky for us these timeless guys are keeping up with the times and feeling stronger every day.
Running time: 2.5 hours with a 20-minute intermission
Chicago played one night only on August 19, 2013, at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap – 1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future performances and Information: Call (877) 965-3872, or check their calendar of events.