By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
Climbing to the second balcony at Hard Rock Live, we didn’t know what to expect from Chicago, a group that cranked out its biggest hits when we were in high school.
There is good reason to be skeptical of legacy bands, especially one that has been performing — and undergoing numerous personnel changes — for more than 50 years.
Chicago not only proved its legitimacy, it blew us away during a high-energy performance of more than two and a half hours that won over an audience of varying ages at the Hollywood, Florida, venue in October 2023.
What sets Chicago apart is three original members who have remained with the group since its inception in 1967. The trio has been at the core of creating and maintaining the distinctive Chicago sound of “a rock and roll band with horns.”
Robert Lamm, keyboard and vocalist, wrote many of the band’s best-known hits, including “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings,” “25 or 6 to 4” and “Saturday in the Park.”
Trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane have always driven Chicago’s signature horn section.
Chicago remains devoted to performing
Now in their mid-to-late 70s, Lamm, Pankow and Loughnane still exhibit a command and enthusiasm for their music that is infectious.
“We’ve always considered ourselves a performance band,” Lamm said in a 2022 interview. “We love to play. We’re not one of those bands that simply phones it in.”
Pankow, who jitterbugs around the stage pumping out his distinctive trombone licks, said before one song, “People will come up to me after a show and they’ll say, ‘Jimmy, we grew up with this music.’ And I’ll say, ‘Guess what, so did I.’ ”
Pankow recalled that when the group recorded its first album, “Chicago Transit Authority” in 1969, the hope was it would do well enough that they could record another. That first album reached No. 17 on the Billboard 200.
Although numerous band members have come and gone along the way, Chicago is still making new music while keeping the old favorites sounding fresh. They released their 26th studio album, “Born for This Moment,” in 2022.
Fitting that lead singer Neil Donell, who joined the band in 2018, introduced the three originals as a prelude to “Beginnings.” (Video below). Because there is no ending on the horizon.
Chicago’s current tour began in early 2023. They will take a break in December and January before resuming in February 2024, including 10 shows scheduled to date in Las Vegas at the Venetian Theater (Feb. 21-March 9, 2024).
I must admit to not being a big Chicago fan when they were cranking out hits in the early ’70s. It took seeing them perform 50 years later to fully appreciate the quality of musicianship and the way they’ve sustained and remain devoted to their music.
Canadian-born Donell is the third lead tenor since Peter Cetera left in 1985 to pursue a solo career. Donell, with a four-octave vocal range, is spot-on in emulating the vocals that are so familiar on Chicago’s recordings.
Chicago’s supporting cast ‘better than ever’
The talent level is high throughout the 10-piece group and each member is featured during the show. One of the unusual moments is an extended duet featuring drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr. and percussionist Ramon Yslas which includes the two players switching places midway through the segment without missing a beat.
(This version of the drum duet was captured at a 2023 concert in Knoxville, Tenn., by Touchy Reactions).
Pankow, in a 2021 interview with ourquadcities.com, said, “We have a supporting cast that’s better than ever. … The band is the best, in my opinion, the best lineup we’ve ever had. The shows have been incredible. We’re having a great time and we look forward to bringing this ensemble into the future for as many years as we can.”
It is mind-boggling to imagine how many times Chicago has performed its classic tunes, yet they still sound fresh after more than five decades.
Credit the enduring founding trio that grew up with the music but never outgrew it. Their passion is still winning new followers after more than five decades.
Check here for Chicago tour venues and dates. More shows are being added well into 2024.
Craig Davis has been a sports journalist in South Florida for more than four decades. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers.