Performing Hit After Hit, Chicago Is Still Chicago: Concert Review

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My disdain for tribute bands extends to legacy bands that are capitalizing on their famous name, and fan base, with only tenuous ties to the real deal. Yes without Jon Andersen isn’t Yes. The Guess Who without Burton Cummings isn’t the Guess Who. And Queen without Freddie Mercury? Forget it—to me, that’s like the three surviving Doors refusing to hang it up and recording two more albums after Jim Morrison’s death in 1971.

And yet Chicago, the rock and brass band known for its revolving door of sidemen, still makes the cut because Robert Lamm, the original lead singer and primary songwriter on their early albums, is still there, as are trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane, the heart of Chicago’s signature horn section. (Guitarist Terry Kath, who in the band’s original lineup shared lead vocal duties with Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera in a baritone virtually indistinguishable from Lamm’s, accidentally shot himself in the head in January 1978. Chicago considered breaking up, but instead plowed on with a succession of guitarists.)

James Pankow, with Neil Donell in the foreground (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold; used with permision)

With Lamm, Pankow and Loughnane still on board, Chicago is still Chicago. The early stuff is where it’s at. I lost interest in the band after the third or fourth album, when Cetera, a tenor, took over most of the lead vocals and the band took a turn toward pop schmaltz with such hits as “Baby What a Big Surprise,” “If You Leave Me Now” and the dreadful “Old Days.” (Cetera left the band in 1985 and was replaced by Jason Scheff, who remained with the band for 31 years.)

Chicago’s sold-out Aug. 23, 2023, concert at Humphrey’s in San Diego, an outdoor venue overlooking a gorgeous marina on San Diego Bay, consisted, in true legacy-band style, of a veritable hit parade of songs most in the audience grew up with.

Related: Our Album Rewind of the LP that started it all

And hearing Lamm, a keyboard strapped around his neck, belting out such early Chicago favorites as “Make Me Smile,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” and “25 or 6 to 4,” their first Top 5 hit, while Pankow and Loughnane blew their hearts out on their respective horns, took me back to my own high school days. Chicago may not have been among the bands the cool kids listened to (those honors belonged to Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and Uriah Heep), but they sure had a lot of songs the rest of us loved and sang along with—in the privacy of our own rooms, of course—every time they came on the FM radio we all listened to after school.

The three originals with drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr. (Photo by Thomas K. Arnold; used with permission)

The flow of music was carefully curated by Lamm and his two fellow original members, who are said to run the band with an iron hand and make all decisions together. In a July 2022 interview with Rock Cellar, Lamm said, “There are only three members who are calling the shots. The rest of the band are great guys, contracted players, top-notch guys.”

One of those “top-notch guys” is Neil Donell, who since 2018 has been singing tenor as a replacement for Cetera, Scheff and, briefly, Jeff Coffey.

Chicago’s Humphrey’s concert, the final show in a two-night stand, lasted nearly two hours, including a 20-minute intermission. The repertoire consisted almost exclusively of hits, in true legacy band fashion. Other early tunes include “Feeling Stronger Every Day,” “Saturday in the Park” and “Questions 67 and 68,” along with Cetera-era ballads such as “Just You ‘n’ Me,” “If You Leave Me Now” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.”

Watch them perform a favorite earlier this year

It was a smooth, polished show, but you know what? It worked. Many classic rock bands intersperse their hits with new material that often gets polite, almost patient applause. They keep trying to replicate the grandeur of their early days, but more often than not they fail. Chicago didn’t even try.

But that’s all right.

Watch Chicago perform “25 or 6 to 5” live in 2023

Thomas K. Arnold

10 Comments so far

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  1. Sing a Mean Tune Kid
    #1 Sing a Mean Tune Kid 19 September, 2023, 20:36

    Two quibbles with this review of one of the greatest bands of all time. Terry Kath’s voice sounded nothing like that of Robert Lamm. Due to his soulful vocals, Kath sang hits like Colour My World and Now That You’ve Gone. Also, James Pankow wrote Old Days and Peter Cetera sang the lead. Thanks for the review!

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    • Gart
      Gart 20 September, 2023, 07:55

      “Sing a Mean Tune” is exactly correct. Kath (a baritone) and Lamm (a tenor) sounded nothing alike. I’ll bet the author was thinking of Lamm and Peter Cetera. Those two had pretty similar voices.

      Reply this comment
    • Thomas K. Arnold
      Thomas K. Arnold 20 September, 2023, 18:33

      Thanks for the comment, but I respectfully disgree. “Realizing the need for both a tenor to complement baritones Lamm and Kath … local tenor and bassist Peter Cetera was invited to join the Big Thing in late 1967.” This, from liner notes to the Chicago boxed set, cited in Wikipedia., Also, I never said Cetera wrote “Old Days”; I merely said he sang lead, which he did.

      Reply this comment
  2. Su
    #2 Su 20 September, 2023, 03:01

    LOVE CHICAGO! Only the Beginning came out and I was hooked. It became THE song of my first serious relationship and every time I hear it, I get choked up. Have seen them play so many times – GREAT GROUP❣️

    Reply this comment
  3. Heetae
    #3 Heetae 20 September, 2023, 04:58

    A band that records new material and plays none of it live is basically a nostalgia act tribute band. Old Days was a big hit. This band has zero in common with the original lineup or the lineup that existed from 1985 to about 2010. As they lost Cetera and then fired people like Danny Seraphine and Bill Champlin and Jason Scheff they became just replacements of replacements of replacements other than the three originals. Learn the history of a band before commenting.

    Reply this comment
  4. Andy
    #4 Andy 20 September, 2023, 07:46

    Now a pale shadow of the original band, settling for MOR.

    Reply this comment
  5. Jeff in Tulsa
    #5 Jeff in Tulsa 20 September, 2023, 12:01

    We just saw Chicago Performing in Tulsa six nights ago. I was shocked that Pankow was no longer with the group! The trombonist that replaced him was fabulous, but Pankow was my favorite original founding member. Does anyone know when he left the group and what happened? Did he just get tired of the traveling, or health reasons or what? The video that was playing in the background, during their entire 2 hr. show behind the band on the stage, was silly & distracting – bunch of actors/models playing & hanging out in the large park in Chicago and guys and gals holding hands and walking around, it was like a commercial. Weird. It was like they were promoting the city of Chicago, old and new, instead of Chicago, the band and their long & successful history. Original vintage videos of the band in the old days, like in their documentaries, like America currently does when they tour, would’ve been so much better. However, the music was fabulous. But I was a little surprised & upset that they never even mentioned any of the former members, especially like Pankow who must have just left the group! Everything online says he is still with the group – just like your article here reads. Thank you to anyone who can help me with this.

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  6. T.P.
    #6 T.P. 20 September, 2023, 17:46

    They should hang it up. Too many bands running around with revolving door personnel holding on for whatever money and notoriety is left.

    Reply this comment
  7. Glenn
    #7 Glenn 20 September, 2023, 23:18

    Pankow has not left! Old days is not dreadful! Peter and Lamm sound nothing alike nor does Lamm and Kath! I’m tired of Chicago being underated and the so called cooler bands being overrated! I like Zepp but they had alot of shit music on those albums!

    Reply this comment
  8. Uncle Jeff
    #8 Uncle Jeff 22 September, 2023, 14:30

    That’s Eric Baines in the foreground, not Neil Donnell.
    Eric plays bass and vocals, been with Chicago for a couple years. Used to play bass and vocals for Dwight Yokum for a few years.
    Excellent singer and musician.
    He’s my nephew so I am biased.

    Reply this comment

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