Sometimes the most telling statement a veteran artist can make comes through a re-assessment of older work fortified by a fresh perspective and, if you’re lucky, a few younger ears.
That’s what happened when the longstanding horn-driven rock troupe Chicago hit the road last year with a revamped lineup to perform one of its most critically lauded and commercially successful records, 1970’s “Chicago II,” from start to finish. While the double-album contained several of the band’s most enduring hits – “25 or 6 to 4,” “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World,” for starters – it also boasted a wealth of material absent from Chicago’s repertoire for ages. That meant some homework for the founding members – keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm, trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane – as well as comparatively newer recruits like vocalist Neil Donell and bassist Brett Simons. What emerged was a new Chicago band forged from, by pop standards, vintage music.
“The new guys – well, actually all of us – had to seriously study that second album and get down and dirty with it to make sure we could really play it,” Lamm said. “In doing so, the current lineup became a band. Now, the thing about being in a band that’s been playing for 50 years is that it’s normal to have changes, to have people come and go for one reason or another. But this current lineup is rather exciting. We’re now a 10-piece, if you can imagine that, so the power of it, both vocally and instrumentally, is remarkable. Even for me, and I’ve been here since day one, I find myself grinning from ear to ear throughout the shows.
“Some of the new guys already knew this music, some didn’t. Brett is of the age where he was sort of peripherally aware of Chicago’s music, but he needed to woodshed quite a bit. He is also the kind of guy who wanted to play the bass parts as they were on the record, so that took some doing. Again, though, he’s a musician who can do that, who was willing to put in the work.”
Lamm compared revisiting the entirety of “Chicago II” to slipping on a pair of jeans from years gone by. Accepting that metaphor, however, begs an inevitable question. In the 49 years since the record’s release, do the jeans still fit?
“They do, amazingly enough,” said Lamm, who looks considerably younger than his 74 years might suggest. “I’ll tell you why, too. To push the metaphor even further, those of us who have stayed active have stayed in shape. So yes, the jeans fit – metaphorically and physically. That’s something that I’m very proud of. All the guys - especially Lee, Jimmy and I, the mainstays - have managed to stay healthy and fit. It’s the only way to keep doing this.”
Delving deep into “Chicago II” also summoned some welcome spirits – namely that of Terry Kath, the band’s co-founding guitarist and one of its three lead vocalists (along with Lamm and Peter Cetera, who split from Chicago in 1985). An instrumentalist championed by no less a pioneer than Jimi Hendrix, Kath died in 1977 of an accidental gunshot wound to the head.
“I did think a lot about Terry and his unusual way of writing songs,” Lamm said. “Actually, none of us knew how to write songs back in the day. We were just writing these compositions we called songs. But I found myself thinking about Terry quite a bit, especially during things like ‘In the Country’ (the Kath-penned tune that concluded the first side of the original vinyl edition of “Chicago II”).
“The other part of that tour was just me rediscovering something like ‘Fancy Colors’ (a Lamm-composed bit of brassy exuberance that kicked off side three). That’s another odd composition that, when we finally got our hands on it in the rehearsals and even during the tour, was like finding a little treasure in something forgotten. I would look across stage and see Jimmy (Pankow) turning around grinning at me during beginning. So yeah, those kinds of things would happen from night to night.”
Whether it was through overlooked gems like “Fancy Colours,” massive hits like “Beginnings” or “Saturday in the Park” and recent works like the Eastern flavored “Naked in the Garden of Allah” (from 2014’s “Chicago XXXVI: Now”), a thread has run through the compositions Lamm has written for Chicago. Some are personal, others political and a few quite topical. But the voice behind them has remained steadfast and singular.
“I see the thread. It’s not a self-conscious thread, but just a result of who I am. Among the many things that influence me in my world is how I see the world around me and the people in it. Music and the lyrics of my music tell you the story of my life. Parts of that life are my observations that I can’t help but express.”
If you go: Chicago
When: 7:30 p.m. March 31
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Dr. in Richmond
Tickets: $69.50- $124.50