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Music

Chicago: The Joy Of Music Remains

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Courtesy photo
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When people talk about the band Chicago, it’s impossible not to mention the group’s horn section.

When the band came onto the music scene in the late 1960s, its sound set it apart from the psychedelic and folk music of the time. Chicago Transit Authority, as it was first known, took elements of classical, jazz and R&B music and emerged with a sound that is distinctly its own.

Founding member Lee Loughnane says the group wasn’t trying to break new ground.

“I don’t think we were thinking along those lines, trying to be innovative or anything like that. We just enjoyed playing music together,” he says.

The band’s early days were spent playing cover songs in clubs, though that didn’t last for long: enter keyboardist and songwriter Robert Lamm.

“When we met Robert Lamm, he had a book of, like, 50 original songs already,” Loughnane says. “So as we played clubs and had time for rehearsals, we started incorporating a couple of Robert’s original songs into our set list during the night because we played five, six hours a night in the clubs. Forty-five minutes on, 15 minutes off. So, we started getting fired from the clubs and it got to a point where we either moved forward and did something else, or we would find ourselves doing something else for a living.”

The band made its way to Los Angeles, where it signed to Columbia Records and released the 1969 album Chicago Transit Authority.

The coming years saw a string of hit albums and singles, though Loughnane says that during those years, the group was often too busy to savor its success.

“We played over 300 days a year for the first few years that we were together. We would come home, if you wanted to consider it home for two or three days, possibly a week, and then we would go back out on the road for three months,” he says. “We were so busy working, we didn’t really focus on ourselves as being stars. We still loved playing music, and I think that’s the thing that’s remained with us all this time, is that we enjoy playing music together. Same as day one.”

Several other horn-driven groups emerged around the time Chicago did, including Blood, Sweat and Tears; Tower of Power and Earth Wind & Fire. Loughnane says that he and his bandmates in Chicago had always admired Earth Wind & Fire, but the chance to tour with the group in 2004 and play the song “In The Stone” together was something he cherishes to this day.

The two bands have teamed up for a number of tours since 2004, including a current one that sees all members of both bands taking to the stage together before and after their individual sets.

“We come on together, play three songs, then Earth Wind & Fire plays a set, Chicago plays a set, then we come back again at the end of the show and do another half-hour together,” Loughnane says. “The show is so powerful. There are two bands, but one and one, in this case, make much more than two.”

A new documentary about the band, Chicago: Now More Than Ever, is making the rounds on the film festival circuit, and Loughnane points out that seeing the group’s history on the big screen jarred his memory about the busiest time of his life.

“Because there were a number of years when I was doing a lot of strange things that my memory banks didn’t really hold everything that we went through and accomplished," he says. "So, by watching the documentary, I was able to learn something about our lives as well.”

With the band now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a 2014 album, titled Chicago XXXVI: Now, reminding fans of the group’s vitality, it seems that the group is experiencing yet another renaissance. Loughnane points out that he sees the future as wide open.

“There doesn’t seem to be a reason to stop. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing as retirement because we play music,” he says. “As long as you practice, keep working to improve yourself, there’s no reason to stop doing it. We’re having fun. We’re able to play with people like Earth Wind & Fire and the Doobie Brothers and various other bands on the road. I could think of a lot worse things to do with my life.”

Chicago performs with Earth Wind & Fire at the Intrust Bank Arena Wednesday evening.

A Selected Chicago Discography

With over 30 albums to its credit and stylistic shifts along the way, Chicago provides music lovers with plenty of material to discover. Here are five to consider:

Chicago Transit Authority (1969)

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The record contains staples such as “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” but also showcases the talents of original guitarist Terry Kath via “Free Form Guitar,” which establishes him as the guitar legend he would become in the space of 6:47.

Chicago V (1972)  

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The group’s musical eclecticism comes to the fore here, suggesting a talent for incorporating classical and jazz seamlessly into the rock idiom. The opening, “A Hit By Varèse,” gives a nod to the French-born avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse, one of Frank Zappa’s greatest musical influences. It also reminds us of Lamm’s prodigious gifts as a composer. Now-departed bassist Peter Cetera gives some of his best recorded performances across the record’s 10 tracks and the horn section shines as bright as ever.

Chicago VII (1974)  

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A more jazz-oriented release than the records just prior, VII packs the greatest punch with its instrumental tracks (namely “Devil’s Sweet”) but features a powerful Loughnane performances on Kath’s “Song of the Evergreens.”

The Box (2003)  

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A bit of a cheat, but the only way to get the hits and the deeper cuts in one place. Following the Chicago evolution, this way provides evidence of transitions that were more seamless than one might realize.

 Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus (2008) 

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Recorded over a decade earlier, this record provides a different view of Chicago than heard on the band’s 1980’s recordings. It remains a favorite among deep-divers, allowing for its appearance here.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

 

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