Chicago (the band) wrapped up its tour celebrating the Collector’s Edition of their iconic 1970 album, Chicago II at the Peoria Civic Center Theater Thursday evening. The album has been nominated for a Lifetime Achievement award, and the first half of the concert was an amazing live – and lively – performance of the album in its entirety. The second half of the concert was a tour through their lengthy catalog of chart-topping hits from the last five decades.
Chicago has toured consistently throughout their five-decade career, and it is obvious that the extensive practice has served them very well. Their performances were musically spot-on throughout the concert, and visually they put on a fun and engaging show. Few bands could withstand the loss of one – let alone more – star members without collapsing. Chicago lost its most beloved member, guitarist and singer Terry Kath, who was memorialized by Robert Lamm as “the heart and soul of the band” in a tragic accident in 1978. Later in 1985, Peter Cetera, who was their most featured vocalist, left after the hugely successful album Chicago 17 for a solo career. Cetera’s replacement, Jason Scheff, left the band in 2016. The band onstage in Peoria Thursday evening proved that they have lost no momentum, and can rock as well as they ever have. Time has been their friend.
One of the best aspects of Chicago is that there is not one “star” with a backing band. The lead role gets passed around from song to song, which helps to keep the sound flowing and interesting. Visually the players all moved around the stage area. Every member had a moment in the spotlight for a featured song. Audience that were seated far to one side of the stage got to see most of the band up close at least part of the time because the lead singer of the songs usually moved front and center or walked around during the song.
Onstage Thursday night were three founding members – Robert Lamm, James Pankow, and Lee Loughnane. Pankow, in particular, had a very energetic stage presence, dancing and swinging the trombone like he did in the 1960’s. Lamm’s voice was just as warm as ever. Loughnane still hit the high notes even after two hours of playing trumpet – which is a difficult and physically taxing instrument to play in that range. Lamm performed several songs in the front line on a Keytar or an acoustic guitar.
New members joined over the years. Keith Howland in 1995 on guitar, Ray Herrmann in 2004 on sax, flute, and clarinet, Lou Pardini in 2009 on vocals and keyboards, Walfredo Reyes Jr in 2011 on drums, plus Ramon Yslas on percussion, Brett Simons on bass, and Neil Donell on vocals joined the band in 2018. These fellows have amazing credentials in the music world working with many famous stars. Ray Herrmann was in the house band for American Idol for seven years.
Lou Pardini sang the lead on several songs that were originally sung by Terry Kath or Cetera, and sounded like he had been a member for decades. Wonderful voice. And the big surprise of the night was Neil Donell, who sang most of the Peter Cetera vocal parts. Most astounding was his performance on Questions 67 and 68, in which the vocal line goes really high. Donell sang it note-perfect. Cetera has a pretty distinctive voice, and I did not expect them to have his vocals covered by anyone who sounded so much like the original. Donell definitely hit it out of the park!
Walfredo and Ramon played an exciting drums-percussion spot with the stage to themselves for several minutes. Their duet dug into their Latin roots stylistically, and featured a nonstop swap of roles as Yslas ducked onto the drum throne as Reyes snuck over and behind to the percussion kit, jammed awhile, and then they reversed again. They looked like they were having a blast – the audience definitely did.
Another icon of the band is the distinctive “cursive” Logo. Featured on the continuously-playing backdrop display for most of the show, “Chicago” was surrounded by dancing flowers, barbequed in flames, colored to match most of their 1970’s album covers, and one particularly cool rendition had it in striped black, red, and purple decay, like it was on the side of an ancient temple. The backdrop display was continuous, at times very bright, but added to the show without distracting from the performance.
What struck me most about the show, aside from the quality of the songs and their excellent musicianship, was the enthusiasm and joy the band members displayed in their faces as they played. You could see not only smiles, but their eyes just were beaming. Pankow was particularly exuberant, and he got me to thinking just how tremendously lucky he must feel being on that stage almost fifty years since they wrote those songs – many of which he wrote, and most of which he arranged – that audiences were still filling theaters to hear him play. I have played in bands for over thirty years, mostly in bars and at town festivals, and mostly performing songs from the radio, and I can attest that it is not always fun playing some battered old bar song yet again, but those guys were up there playing their own [amazingly good] songs for enthusiastic audiences and that makes a huge difference. I really felt so much joy for them.
For a one-sentence summary of Chicago’s concert: They were outstanding!
Review by Winston Dunbar
Photos by Mike McMillen