September 16, 2021

Rock and Roll Hall of Famers on Way to Interlochen

Chicago’s Greatest Hits Tour
By Ross Boissoneau | July 24, 2021

People attending the Chicago show at Interlochen Aug. 3 may feel like they’re traveling back through time. The band will be opening the show with the first song from the band’s first album, Chicago Transit Authority, released in 1969. It will then move on to its hits from the ’70s, then the ’80s. 

It’s all part of the band’s Greatest Hits tour, which started back in the pre-pandemic era. “When we played the last show at the Venetian in Las Vegas, we started with ‘Introduction.’ It worked so well, there was no reason to stop,” says Chicago trumpeter Lee Loughnane. From there, it’s a trip through the band’s catalog from the last 50 years: “Questions 67 and 68,” “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “You’re the Inspiration,” “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” and other pieces from the soundtracks to its many fans’ lives.

Loughnane, one of the founding members of the band, says the song “Introduction” really is a great introduction to the band and all its music. “The chords, the tempo, and mood changes, everything,” he says. It opens with the organ and horn section exchanging a riff, while the insistent rhythm section of Peter Cetera’s bass and Danny Seraphine’s drumming and tapping on the bell of the cymbal introduce Terry Kath’s growling vocals.

The lyrics reflect the band’s beginnings: “We've all spent years preparing/Before this group was born/With Heaven's help/it blended/And we do thank the Lord./So if you've nothing to do/Sit back and let us through/And let us play for you.” Then solos from James Pankow’s trombone, Loghnane, and Kath on guitar propel the song to the third verse. “It’s the stuff that put us on the map, who we are, what we play,” Loughnane says.

That first double-album spawned a succession of songs heard on FM radio, and today still finds its way to classic rock stations. The same was true of the double-album follow-ups, and even the death of Kath couldn’t slow the group’s momentum. Spurred by the arrival of multi-instrumentalist and vocal arranger Bill Champlin and producer David Foster, the group morphed into a hit machine, with ballads featuring Cetera on vocals gave it a new lease on life in the ’80s.

Today Chicago stands proudly on a discography of more than 40 albums, including studio efforts, live albums, and various hits compilations. The band hasn’t topped the charts in decades, but like many of its fellow veteran artists, Chicago has continued to live life on the road, performing for crowds across the world. 

Well, it did … until the pandemic struck. “We were forced to stop March 14. The next day, the world closed,” says Loughnane.

For a band whose endurance and popularity is driven by its commitment to touring, axing performances was hard to take. So Loughnane used the downtime to dive into the band’s past performances. Back in 1971, Chicago became the first non-classical group to perform six nights in a row at Carnegie Hall. Between April 5 and 10 of that year, the band played eight shows at the celebrated venue (including two matinees) and recorded every one of them.

Soon after the Carnegie shows, in October 1971, the band released a quadruple album (vinyl, of course) of highlights from the live shows. But apparently, that wasn’t enough. During the pandemic, Loughnane and engineer Tim Jessup spent nearly a year going through more than 40 concert tapes at Loughnane’s new studio in Arizona, meticulously remastering each concert. 

The result, Chicago at Carnegie Hall Complete, a 16-CD deluxe boxed set, is available for the not-so-low price of $179.98 at www.rhino.com exclusively. “All eight shows are coming out,” says Loughnane proudly. “Technology is such now you can go in and delete the ambient noise, hear the note, delete the ambient noise after it, for every instrument and vocal,” he says.

So that’s what Loughnane and Jessup did, going through every single note for every song at every show. The result of the painstakingly remastered version: “It sounds better than ever before.”

Hearing the cleaned-up shows was music to Loughnane’s ears. “I was thinking we hadn’t played that well. For us at the time, it was just [another] show. The next day [after the final Carnegie Hall performance] we went back to California to another show, the continuation of a tour.”

Although Loughnane didn’t grasp the luster of the band’s Carnegie performances at the time, the recordings caught Chicago at its early best, when the group was riding high on the success of tunes like “Beginnings,” “25 or 6 to 4,” and “Free.”

Fast-forward 50 years and Loughnane is eager to return to the stage, though getting there isn’t the kick it once was. “I don’t like to travel. In the ’70s, with a 747, that was a lot of fun. The second deck was like a piano bar,” he says.

What he does like is playing his horn, both onstage and on his own. “I love the shows and practicing.”

Practicing? We’re talking about practicing? Yes. The 74-year-old Loughnane is an advocate of continuing to set goals and practicing to reach them. “You’ve got to keep practicing. You want to hit that high note. There’s always improvement possible if you’re doing the right stuff and have a goal,” he says.

Good thing, because while the players and the music have gotten older, the latter has not been simplified. “The music has never gotten easier to play,” Loughnane says. 

These days, the Chicago onstage is significantly different than the band of a half-century ago. Any number of members have come and gone, but the sound remains much the same. Loughnane and fellow founding members Pankow and Robert Lamm (keyboards and vocals) are joined by musicians drawn to the band’s still-enticing combination of jazz and rock. It’s a blend Loughnane says came organically from the beginning, when those three alongside Kath, Cetera, and Danny Seraphine first convened at reed player Walter Parazaider’s apartment and formed The Big Thing. 

Chicago has been lauded throughout its more than half-century of existence. It’s won two Grammy Awards, including the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, which celebrates performers who have made outstanding contributions of artistic significance to the field of recording. The band was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.

Chicago Transit Authority was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2014, and Robert Lamm and James Pankow were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017. Pankow received the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Trombone Association. Perhaps most notably, bands across the world have performed its music for decades, from high school and college marching bands to several tribute bands.

Chicago performs at Interlochen’s Kresge Auditorium Aug. 3. The show opens the institution’s pandemic-shortened slate of summer concerts. For tickets or other information, go to www.interlochen.org.

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