Chicago: still feelin’ stronger every day
Over its 45-year history, Chicago has rarely gone a summer without doing a major tour. And 2012 will add to that streak, first with a run of headlining shows that has already begun, and then later this summer, with a co-headlining tour with the Doobie Brothers.
But one thing that appears likely to occur this summer is something that has not often been a part of Chicago’s touring routine – the band will be working on new songs to be released as an album or in some other form in the not-too-distant future.
“We’ve started already exchanging ideas,” keyboardist/singer Robert Lamm revealed in a mid-April phone interview. “I’ve already contributed three songs. So it’s just a matter of rendering them. That’s one of the things we’re going to try to do on the road. We’ve figured out a way to do it, and that’s actually a very exciting development this year.”
It wasn’t that long ago that any thought of doing a new album seemed pretty much dead in the water within Chicago.
Record labels were showing little interest in having the band record new original material. The group had released a grand total of two CDs of new material since 1991 (the 2006 release, “Chicago XXX,” was the most recent release), if you don’t count “Stone Of Sisyphus,” an album originally recorded in 1993, shelved by Warner Bros. Records, and finally released in 2008.
Several band members had grown frustrated by a lack of radio stations playing new music by veteran bands and what appeared to be a general disinterest among record companies for a new Chicago CD.
With the group’s touring business remaining strong, some in the group saw little point to investing the time and effort needed to make a new CD.
So what changed?
First of all, a little Christmas spirit got Chicago in the creative spirit – as in the making of last year’s holiday CD, “O Christmas Three.”
“It (opposition to making a new CD) changed once we had the experience of working together in the studio when we recorded the Christmas album,” Lamm said.
“Everybody contributed, everybody had fun doing it. There was less dissension than in the past with previous lineups in the studio. To me there was much more openness to each other’s ideas. I think the Christmas album is artistically a great (album) and it reminded us of the best way to work in the studio, which is kind of a workshop atmosphere. It reminded us that that is the way to go. So now that we’ve got that one project under our belts, everybody is much more enthusiastic about the prospect of recording new music.”
That sort of workshop atmosphere did not exist the last time Chicago was actively recording and releasing albums. That was during the 1980s, when Chicago not only made a comeback, but saw its career hit new heights of success after it partnered with producer David Foster.
Originally, the band was known during the late 1960s and 1970s for making rocking, horn-infused music (along with the occasional ballad and
mid-tempo song). As the band worked its way through its first decade, it released nine studio albums that gave the group a long list of hits, including “25 Or 6 To 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Saturday In The Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” and “If You Leave Me Now.”
That momentum, though, was tragically interrupted in December 1978 when guitarist-singer Terry Kath died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.
After seriously considering breaking up, Chicago regrouped, but struggled through the next several albums as a succession of guitarists came and went and disco and new wave became the musical trends of the day.
But things turned around with 1982’s “16,” a CD that featured the debut of singer-guitarist-keyboardist Bill Champlin and production and songwriting assistance from Foster. A ballad from that CD, “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” went No. 1 and started a string of five ballad-laden hit albums.
Those CDs and hit singles returned Chicago to the top of the charts, but it wasn’t always a musically satisfying period for the band, particularly its horn section, which took a back seat in the softer Chicago sound. Lamm said the group also got away from the kind of collaborative album making approach that had characterized its early albums.
“I would say starting in the ’80s, starting in the David Foster era, many of those albums were essentially producer driven, where it was like everybody in the band sort of waited outside the studio and waited for his number to be called to see what he was going to contribute, rather than going into the studio together playing down the various songs ideas that members had brought in and developing them and making contributions or suggestions,” Lamm said. “That’s really the strength of this band is that everybody is so talented and has a wealth of ideas all the time, and for all the hundreds of songs that I’ve written, the ones with Chicago, the ones that are the best are these songs where I was able to hear what people had to say and listen to what the contributions might be and the song becomes better.
That’s what we experienced again on the Christmas album and I think going forward that’s the way we’re going to work.”
What also has re-energized Chicago has been the arrival of keyboardist Lou Pardini, who replaced Bill Champlin in 2009.
“The band has never sounded better,” Lamm said. “Lou is a complete musician and wonderful singer, so he’s just an amazing player. And he’s a very sweet and very professional guy. He’s made all of us in the band very comfortable. …The main thing is he’s a good man and he really helps Chicago shine every night. So I think that it was really a great move. I do think we have improved as a result of him being part of the band.”
Pardini and Lamm are joined in Chicago by its three original horn players – James Pankow (trombone), Walt Parazaider (flute/sax) and Lee Loughnane (trumpet) – as well as Jason Scheff (bass, vocals), Tris Imboden (drums) and Keith Howland (guitar).
And where Chicago had previously found record company interest in the band lacking, Lamm said two companies have expressed interest in releasing new Chicago music. But the band also has its own label and a website that has turned into a viable avenue for releasing new material.
“We are very comfortable with us being the record company and being kind of on our own terms, on our own schedule,” Lamm said. “These are the kinds of things that occupy us on the long bus rides. We really talk these things out and make our decisions at that point.”
Of course, those bus rides will be taking Chicago around the country on a co-headlining tour with the Doobie Brothers from July 11-Aug. 24.
Chicago’s show will be dominated by songs that will be familiar to its audience.
“We have found that by staying with our biggest hits and maybe presenting one or two or three interesting new additions each touring year is kind of a winning formula,” Lamm said. “We don’t really want to go away from that at this point. … Staying within that parameter, by and large, 90 percent of the time, is really what makes for a memorable concert.”