When an audience witnesses a cherished pop act in performance, expectations and excitement inevitably go hand in hand, especially when a benchmark hit is played. After all, such an occasion could easily be the only opportunity some patrons will ever have to hear a favored artist play their most popular music in person.
But what is it like for the artist to dig back into those hits night after night, year after year, or if fortune lasts long enough, decade after decade? How can the artist maintain a level of performance fun and freshness through the ages?
The longstanding horn-driven pop ensemble Chicago answered that question in bold, immediate terms when it performed last December at the Louisville Palace. No sooner did the stage lights dim than the band tore into Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon, a lengthy suite from its 1970 self-titled sophomore album that underscored its use of horns, rich pop melodies and dynamic vocal interplay. It included two of Chicago's biggest and earliest hits: Make Me Smile and Colour My World.
What resulted wasn't some tired, choreographed piece of pop nostalgia, but a tight ensemble performance that sounded remarkably vital considering it has probably been played, in one form or another, at every Chicago concert for the past 43 years.
"I think that is the result of several factors," said Chicago co-founder, co-vocalist, songwriter, keyboardist and vocalist Robert Lamm. "Individually, and as a group, we remain curious about music. We remain open to discovering new aspects of music — both music that we are already familiar with, like our own catalog, and just music in general.
"So we've hit upon a thing that is really unspoken between us. When we perform songs that we've done, as you say, hundreds if not thousands of times, the intention is to try to play the music as perfectly as we can. And, of course, no night is perfect. No performance is perfect. So it's the process of pursuing that perfection that makes it fun, and I think that freshness comes through to the audience."
For many fans — whether they favor the innovative, orchestrated rock arrangements that defined the band's early-'70s hits (25 or 6 to 4, I'm a Man, Beginnings) or the smoother pop ballads that won a renewed following in the mid-'80s (Hard to Say I'm Sorry, Hard Habit to Break, You're the Inspiration) — what has long distinguished Chicago is its use of horns. It's hardly the first pop band to use them, but few have found such lasting appeal with brass as one of the chief components of its music.
Like Lamm, the trio of trombonist James Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and saxophonist Walter Parazaider have been Chicago members since the band's inception in 1967.
"When I can get out of the sort of lunch-bucket attitude of being onstage with these guys, I can appreciate how really unique the three of them are, especially when they are totally on," Lamm said. "The way they play so well together, the way each bit they play is phrased is very unique.
"Not to belabor it, but having that experience now when we record new things that are not so easy to write and not so easy to play ... to hear them break those things down and make sure that they sound great is incredible."
Ah, yes, new music. For any pop band that has enjoyed extended commercial popularity, creating new music can be a thankless undertaking. With concert audiences paying to hear tunes from the past and a recording industry that has radically decayed in an age of online downloading and streaming, the incentive for soldiering on with new music diminishes. Lamm admitted that it has caused friction in the Chicago ranks over the years. But this summer, the band has been recording, while on tour, what will become its 34th album.
"Having lived through several eras of pop music, what I'm finding now is that it's really kind of the Wild West again. It's not unlike the late '60s, where the A&R (artist and repertoire) people at the record companies were very young. I mean they were at least the same age as many of the artists, so we had the ability to stretch out and experiment and have the record company at least be open to that.
"We're finding that again now because basically artists are left to their own devices. That has created an environment where we really can do anything we want. Not that anybody has ever had control of the result of what we have done."
Still, with artistic independence comes artistic responsibility — or at least, discipline. That's something the band learned during the commercial lull that separated its '70s and '80s chart successes.
"I think there was a bit of an illusion going on back then, even for a successful band like Chicago. After a half-dozen albums, we foolishly assumed that anything we did was going to sell and that we were always going to have a hit. But I believe that was just an illusion brought on by our youthful arrogance. So rather than be arrogant anymore, we're just enthusiastic.
"Frankly, I think we are at a high point now. Maybe 10 years ago, we passed through that phase where some of the guys in the band were not that interested in doing new music. It was a very discouraging time. But this Wild West climate that we're experiencing now is boding good things for Chicago. We're experiencing a kind of renaissance."
IF YOU GO
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond.
Tickets: $57-$87. Available at (859) 622-7469 and EKUcenter.com.