A Second Wind
After more than four decades of touring, Chicago is rejuvenated to produce new music again
Chicago has a 45-year history of being on major tours nearly every year, so this year’s run of about four dozen scheduled concerts from April to September is nothing new.
What’s new is that the band will mix in work on new songs for release in the not-too-distant future.
“We’ve started already exchanging ideas,” keyboardist and singer Robert Lamm said in a phone interview. “So it’s just a matter of rendering them. That’s one of the things we’re going to try to do on the road.”
It wasn’t too long ago that any thought of doing a new album seemed pretty much dead in the water within Chicago.
Record labels were showing little interest in having the band record new, original material. Several band members had grown frustrated by a lack of radio stations playing new music by veteran bands. With the group’s touring business remaining strong, some in the multifaceted group saw little reward in producing a new album.
So what changed?
First of all, a little Christmas spirit rejuvenated Chicago’s creative vibes — as in the making of the 2011 album “O Christmas Three.”
“It changed once we had the experience of working together in the studio when we recorded the Christmas album,” Lamm said. “Everybody contributed, everybody had fun doing it. There was less dissension than in the past with previous lineups in the studio. To me, there was much more openness to each other’s ideas. I think the Christmas album is artistically a great [album] and it reminded us of the best way to work in the studio, which is kind of a workshop atmosphere.”
That atmosphere did not exist the last time Chicago was actively recording and releasing albums. That was during the 1980s, when the group partnered with producer David Foster.
Originally, the band (then called Chicago Transit Authority) was known during the late 1960s and 1970s for making rocking, horn-infused jazz-rock (along with the occasional ballad and mid-tempo song). In its first decade, Chicago released nine studio albums that gave it a long list of hits, including “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” “Saturday in the Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” and “If You Leave Me Now.”
That momentum, though, was interrupted in December 1978 when, tragically, guitarist/singer Terry Kath died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The group struggled forward for a few years until 1982’s “16,” an album that featured the debut of singer/guitarist/keyboardist Bill Champlin as well as Foster's production and songwriting assistance. A ballad from "16," “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” went No. 1 and started a string of five ballad-laden hit albums.
Those albums and hit singles returned Chicago to the top of the charts, but it wasn’t always a musically satisfying period for the band, particularly its horn section, which took a back seat in the softer Chicago sound. Lamm said the group also got away from the kind of collaborative album-making approach that had characterized its early efforts.
“I would say starting in the ’80s, starting in the David Foster era, many of those albums were essentially producer-driven, where it was like everybody in the band sort of waited outside the studio and waited for his number to be called to see what he was going to contribute, rather than going into the studio together playing down the various song ideas that members had brought in and developing them and making contributions or suggestions,” Lamm said. “That’s really the strength of this band, is that everybody is so talented and has a wealth of ideas all the time.”
What also has re-energized Chicago has been the arrival of keyboardist Lou Pardini, who replaced Champlin in 2009.
“The band has never sounded better,” Lamm said. “Lou is a complete musician and wonderful singer, so he’s just an amazing player. And he’s a very sweet and very professional guy. … I do think we have improved as a result of him being part of the band.”
The rest of Chicago consists of trombonist James Pankow, saxophonist and flutist Walt Parazaider, trumpeter Lee Loughnane bassist Jason Scheff, drummer Tris Imboden and guitarist Keith Howland.
Chicago’s concerts are typically dominated by songs familiar to its fans.
“We have found that by staying with our biggest hits and maybe presenting one or two or three interesting new additions each touring year is kind of a winning formula,” Lamm said.