Friday, July 2, 2010

Chicago: Et Cetera (1985)

(As published in the West Virginia University Daily Athenaeum ... )

Nothing better demonstrates the adage "You can't take from the times what the times won't give" than Chicago's recent records and, in particular, their Coliseum concert three nights ago.

The nine men that bounded onstage at 8:50 Saturday night, dressed in immaculate white outfits and looking fitter than Hulk Hogan (with the exception of guitarist Chris "Man Mountain" Pinnick) bore little resemblance to the Chicago (née Transit Authority) that debuted in 1969 with a Big Band/Yardbirds double-disc set of post-hippiedom tunesmithery, or the Chicago that filled the '70s with several dozen wonderful singles and a greatest-hits record (Chicago IX) that still hangs in there with the best.

Chicago circa 1985 is, in fact, a study in eternal survival, a living testament to the power of positive trending and the hypothesis that you're never old 'til your audience is. They've outlasted almost-soundalikes like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Three Dog Night by over ten years and have taken from the times the faceless aegis of hooks and--literally--blank verse to become, slowly but surely, America's Numero Uno Hit-Makers-for-Life, a hegemony with no outside threat in sight.

The transition Saturday night from new material to old and back was seamless, opening with the brassy "We Can Stop the Hurtin'" (from 17) and rolling unblinkered through a "Make Me Smile/Colour My World" medley and "Saturday in the Park." Other radio staples ("Beginnings," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is") followed en route to the climactic and hysterically received slow-dance/make-out trilogy of "Hard Habit to Break," "You're the Inspiration," and "Hard to say I'm Sorry" (each of which, by the way, is exactly the same song). The crowd was held in rapt attention throughout despite the familiar sludge of Coliseum acoustics.

By the encores Chicago the Rockers began to emerge from behind Chicago the Perennial Professionals. A riff-happy run-through of "I'm a Man" (from the first album) sparked the first signs of dancing in the aisles, while a surprising (and a surprisingly good) cover of "Got to Get You into My Life" touched bases with anyone who, by this point, was still wondering what the fuss was about. A reprise of "Breakaway" (the tail end of "Hard Habit") ended the show with a bang, and several thousand highly held lighters tried in vain to bring the band back for encore number four.

I guess the kids didn't know that the unions don't allow that sort of thing.

Six of the nine current Chicago members are originals going back the full seventeen years. The brass trio that signatured each Chicago classic--James Pankow (trombone), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), Walter Parazaider (woodwinds)--is still intact despite the rumors of their being ditched ELO-style that keep circulating and the complete inability of any Chicago fan I know (myself included) to pronounce their names correctly. They freely maneuvered the multi-level space-age stage thanks to the uncumbersome mini-mics located in or on each horn, making up for their occasionally perfunctory performances with a decent display of agility.

Still, expert mainstreaming has cost the group some of the joire de vivre they used to embody. Parazaider's flute solo in "Colour My World" was a bit ho-hum, as was new-member Bill Champlin's vocal (the original was sung by the late Terry Kath), reducing the song to the sum of its famous piano arpeggios.

As for the onanistic solos that came about halfway through the set, they were definitely the low mark of the night. Pankow's ten seconds of trombone blurts sounded almost virtuosic compared to Bobby Lamm's three minutes of piano bang (neat chords, all four of 'em). And drummer Danny Seraphine and percussionist Kenny Cetera's drum solo (well, since their were two of them, I guess it was a duet) was the same one that every drummer since the invention of Side Three on double live albums has turned into coliseum-rock's most depressing "necessity."

Refreshingly, vocalist Peter Cetera's acknowledgment of MTV in his talk preceding "Along Comes a Woman" ("They're showing the video tonight for the first time!"--audience screams) and his dedication of "You're the Inspiration" to the crowd ("This is for you!"--more screams) showed that he and the band were no dummies when it comes to knowing on which side their bread is buttered. The crowd's singing along on "Stay the Night" suggested it didn't matter, and I guess it doesn't.

The only ironies in the saga of the reborn Chicago that the concert didn't resolve are what to do with 1) all the hits they don't have room to perform anymore (twice the amount that they do perform), 2) the high-school girls who say after each show, "I didn't know it was Chicago that did 'Got to Get You into My Life!'" and 3) the depression those same girls may suffer when they realize that adorable Peter Cetera is old enough to be their father.

Nobody said it was easy.

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