Chicago at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion

C. Michael Bailey By

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Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion
Rogers, Arkansas
May 3, 2015

I saw the Eagles with Yes in 1975 at Barton Coliseum and then saw them both 25 years later at our river amphitheater. I saw Chicago 35 years ago at Barton Coliseum and then recently. While I am not an authority...I do know from where I come.

Musical acts from the 1960s and '70s have made a cottage industry and cash cow from Baby Boomer nostalgia. The Rolling Stones, the Who, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, Eric Clapton and the like have all followed the same career arc, arriving at their present profitable and entertaining state. That arc includes beginning with hungry, creative artists and progressing through mid-career mega-success and popularity to an extended fallow period characterized by band break-ups, member deaths, and assorted rehabilitations ostensibly ending in an extended, and very lucrative coda. These bands evolved similarly into identical business models where their respective laurels were a perfectly fine place to rest with the occasional release of new music to remind the public who they are. Chicago, originally Chicago Transit Authority, has enjoyed a very similar path, a success reflected and surveyed in the band's recent performance at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers, Arkansas on Sunday, May 3, 2015.

Founded in 1967 in the town of the same name, Chicago began as an edgy progressive rock experiment whose innovation included a three-piece horn section and uniquely precise song composition and arrangement. The band's music began as politically charged and exceptionally-crafted progressive rock on the band's first four recordings before smoothing out into a more popular, ballads-based repertoire, the hinge being Chicago V (Columbia, 1973). Over the next five years the band released five recordings assuring the band's popular fame (as well as their bank accounts). On January 23, 1978, before the band began recording what would be Hot Streets (Columbia, 1978), guitarist and founding member Terry Kath died after accidently shooting himself while cleaning a gun. Needless to say, this began the band's fallow period, which while they continued to be successful, their sound was forever changed.

Like their contemporaries, The Band, with vocalists Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, and the Beach Boys, with that entire lineup, Chicago had multiple superb singers in guitarist Terry Kath, keyboardist Robert Lamm, and bassist Peter Cetara. With this vocal front, Chicago would produce some of the most enduring popular music before Kath's unnecessary death. While standing in line for this show, my wife and I struck up a conversation with two thirty/forty-something sisters (my wife sharing this age demographic), who were attending their first concert. The sisters spoke in terms of having listened to Chicago 17 (Warner Brothers, 1984) and its singles "A Hard Habit to Break" and "You're My Inspiration." Needless to say, the band faded from my murky memory after Chicago V and were completely gone after Kath's death. So, it is from that perspective I heard this concert.

Like the aforementioned Baby-Boomer groups, Chicago has had plenty of time to hone their material to a fine sheen. The show they presented this evening was two-and-one-half hours of beginning-to-end hits split by one 20 minute intermission. Characteristic of all mentioned bands, Chicago's performance was near perfect, as I am sure the one previous was and the one tomorrow will be. That is the benefit/curse of a long performing life. The product provided is one of high quality and entertainment but of low quality in contemporary musical innovation and freshness. Then again, innovation and freshness are not high on the priority list of the band's audience, who, like me, wanted a decent survey of the band's oeuvre (focusing on the earlier music—a personal preference) presented in a sensible amount of time, ending early enough to go to work the next day. That was accomplished.

The chronologic distribution of the music performed favored the earlier recordings over the later, a wise marketing plan even for the evenly age-distributed audience as their earlier music had greater cultural, if not populist, value. In any event, the band did not want for material in this show and performed it all as if they were playing for themselves and glad to have an audience to celebrate with. The show dynamics placed the remaining original members front and center: Robert Lamm, trumpeter Lee Loughane, saxophonist Walter Parazaider, and trombonist James Pankow. The horns are definitely center stage. Vocal duties are dispersed among Lamm, bassist Jason Scheff (who replaced Cetera in mid-1985 and took on his predecessor's tenor vocal role), and keyboardist Lou Pardini. Only the fussiest traditionalist would complain about this line up. Guitarist Keith Howland was an excellent addition in 1995 and performed superbly in this concert (Terry Kath being long gone for almost 40 years). All of the performances were precise and accurate, as they should be after so long.

The show predictable opened with Terry Kath's "Introduction," the first song on the first side of the band's Spring 1969 debut Chicago Transit Authority (Columbia). The song has lost little of its edgy sophistication, appropriately introducing the band with the fruits of its genesis. The first recording provided four performances this evening, the other three being "Questions 67 & 68," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is," and "I'm a Man." That is good coverage for that recording. Chicago V (Columbia, 1972), that pivotal recording between the band's early, experimental beginnings and superstardom, provided the brilliant "Dialogue (Part I & II)" (with "Saturday in the Park" occurring closer to the end of the concert). By necessity, Chicago II (Columbia, 1970) yielded the most contributions to the concert, the band covering trombonist Pankow's "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" in its entirety, "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World" inclusive. The band's biggest early hit, "25 or 6 to 4" was used to close the concert in encore, sporting an extended guitar solo by Howland as the anchoring interlude. The band's heyday years were well represented.

To prepare for this concert, I listened to two early Chicago performances: Chicago at Carnegie Hall (Columbia, 1971) and Live in "75 (Rhino, 2011). I chose to hear these recordings because I know they would be devoid of the plastic perfectionism to modern live recordings. Presenting the band in its most organic perspective. I was struck by the similarities that exist between the vocals of Chicago, The Band, and the Beach Boys. All three were the unique combination of vastly different vocal approaches. Chicago's vocals are rough, approximating the calculated chaos of the Band at its best. In the studio, Chicago's vocals were as gold-stamped as those of the Beach Boys under the same conditions. Chicago's wealth of vocal talent during this early period is often taken for granted.

These listenings allowed this late-Baby Boomer a chance for reflection on music that meant something entirely different to me when it was new than it does now. This music is durable and robust, still offering something even 40 years on.

Set List 1. Introduction 2. (Unknown) (instrumental jam) 3. Questions 67 & 68 4. Dialogue (Part I & II) 5. If You Leave Me Now 6. Alive Again 7. Now 8. Call on Me 9. (I've Been) Searchin' So Long 10. Mongonucleosis 11. Will You Still Love Me? 12. Another Rainy Day in New York City 13. Look Away 14. Make Me Smile (Part of 'Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon') 15. So Much to Say, So Much to Give (Part of 'Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon') 16. Anxiety's Moment (Part of 'Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon') 17. West Virginia Fantasies (Part of 'Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon') 18. Colour My World (Part of 'Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon') 19. To Be Free (Part of 'Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon') 20. Now More Than Ever (Part of 'Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon') 21. Old Days 22. Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? 23. Hard Habit to Break 24. You're the Inspiration 25. Beginnings 26. I'm a Man (The Spencer Davis Group cover) 27. Street Player 28. Just You 'n' Me 29. Hard to Say I'm Sorry 30. Please Hold On 31. Saturday in the Park 32. Feelin' Stronger Every Day Encore: 33. Free 34. 25 or 6 to 4

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