When you’re a multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning group whose album sales have topped the one-hundred-million mark over a forty-seven-year span, it may seem as if there are no new plateaus possible. And yet 2014 is already turning out to be one of the most extraordinary ever for Chicago the band in its long history.
In January, Chicago played two sold-out concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, completing a remarkable career arc for the four original members still with the band who spent a significant portion of their formative years at or near Orchestra Hall in the mid-to-late 1960s.
“Standing on the stage of Orchestra Hall and playing with the Chicago Symphony was the highlight of my career,” assesses trumpeter Lee Loughnane. “I will never forget it.”
Loughnane had played with Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra of the CSO and also attended concerts in the hall when he was a student at the DePaul University School of Music, where he met classmates and saxophonist Walt Parazaider, trombonist James Pankow and original band producer and manager James W. Guercio.
“Looking out into that space,” says Loughnane, “the last time I was in there was listening to Copland or something way up in the gallery where if you make a misstep, you end up on the first floor. That was so much fun, so invigorating. I can’t put enough adjectives together to say how great that was. We’ve done many shows with many orchestras, but this was the Chicago Symphony: the best in the world. It was unbelievable.”
That same week—indeed the Sunday night between the two CSO performances—Chicago played their first-ever Grammy Awards telecast live in Los Angeles with Robin Thicke as a nod to their first album, “Chicago Transit Authority” (1969), having been voted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame. “We had been presenters,” says keyboardist and vocalist Robert Lamm, “but never actually played on the show. And there were Paul and Ringo right in the front row leading the standing ovation that followed while seemingly the whole world was watching.”
The band also began releasing a series of new singles late last year and over the last few months that were initially only available via the group’s website, a marketing method more associated with younger groups and independent artists than with iconic bands that have been around nearly half a century.
In early July, “Chicago XXXVI: Now” was released, Chicago’s first new album of original material since “Chicago XXX” in 2006. (The albums in-between included a hit compilation, a never-released album from the early nineties, a Christmas album, a never-released live album from the mid-seventies and a re-recording of Chicago classics.)
In case you’re wondering, the band itself has long since lost count of the numbering system begun by Guercio which began with Roman numerals but became standard Arabic numbers during the band’s most popular period during the 1980s before returning to Roman numerals in the 1990s.
“Millions of people grew up with us in the eighties and had no idea we had other albums,” says Loughnane. “They were wondering why our first album was called ‘Chicago 16.’ That was unusual for a new band. And they’d say, ‘Dad, Mom check this out: these guys are great! And the parents would go into their bedroom closet and pull out fifteen other albums. ‘You mean these guys?’”
“Now” represents a radical departure for Chicago—and potentially for a floundering music industry—given the unusual way it was recorded: without the band ever having stepped into a traditional studio but using a portable setup that has come to be known as “the Rig.”
“When we were making our last Christmas album with [late producer] Phil Ramone back in 2010,” says Loughnane, “I asked him in the studio one day, ‘I want to be able to record on the road, what do I start with to get that accomplished? Something simple that I can carry in my bag and not have to bring a whole studio with me.’ ‘Lee, you need a great microphone and a great pre-amp. If you don’t have the best signal that you could possibly get, you can’t make it better. But if you get a quality file on the computer, on the hard drive, you can always enhance that with plug-ins and EQ and various other things that are available.’”
With the help of engineer Tim Jessup, Loughnane began with three microphones, but “knew I was working with the band’s money, so I couldn’t break the bank. You could spend ten grand on one mic. I built two complete studios: one that travels with us on the road with Pro Tools on the computer and external hard drives to carry the information back and forth. As we did stuff, we sent files through our website post-production site to our engineer in California, Hank Linderman. He put all the stuff together to make it cohesive in a mix form but each guy who wrote the song was the producer of that particular song.
“We thought that in order to get a cohesive mix, we should have one guy doing that so with a couple of exceptions, Hank mixed the entire album. He would come out and record the horns in a hotel ballroom or a conference room. We’d set up the three microphones and get a hotel master suite with a living room in the middle and two bedrooms on either side and set up the gear in the living room, three microphones, and carve: just play. We would have whatever arrangements written, we would spend a day off recording those things. On other days when we didn’t need Hank to come out, we could just do one vocalist or instrumentalist at a time. I would just set it up in my room and have somebody record their part. It wasn’t a thing where we had to be cloistered away like you do in the studio.”
Initially, other band members remained skeptical and Loughnane says he knew that everything had to be “two-hundred to three-hundred percent better” in order for “the Rig” to become accepted by the rest of the group. “I had to prove to the band that this was not just demo quality gear. So we recorded [the 1972 Chicago hit] ‘Dialogue’ and I brought one guy at a time to the back of our touring bus, with the engine running and we were able to filter out the noise later on in the mix with one of the plug-ins. We did it one at a time, with one microphone. They each sang their parts, or played their parts individually one at a time and built it up. We recorded the drums on a stage, building up a new recording of ‘Dialogue.’”
But it wasn’t until the group recorded a new song, “Something’s Coming, I Know,” that Lamm, “the most skeptical” according to Loughnane, fully came on board. “He kept writing, we kept writing, and now we have a new album.”
“I had a lot of songs and they were going to end up somewhere,” says Lamm, “most likely on another solo album.” Lamm has released several solo albums over the years and has also written some of Chicago’s most popular hits, including “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” “Beginnings,” “Free,” “Saturday in the Park” and “Dialogue,” among others. “I’ve been forging ahead for the last twenty-five years regardless of what the guys in the band wanted to do, and regardless of what was happening in the music industry. The two things kind of dovetailed together. The guys decided, ‘Let’s try to see if we can try and record while we’re touring and put together an album somehow.’ We didn’t even say the ‘A’ word, the album word. We were really just interested in getting new songs to whoever could find them on our website, iTunes or in some other way. That was really all we wanted to do. After this album, this is all we intend to do. We intend to keep writing new music, keep recording new music, however we need to do it.
“I think the whole thing about recording on the road, that’s the hook that journalists have a lot of interest in and ask a lot about, but the fact is, we could have just as easily taken a month off and done a lot of this in one place. The fact that we did it on the road and the fact that it sounds so good is an indication of where the technology has gone and an indication of the energy and commitment of the band. Those are good things.
“Once I made the decision that okay, these group of compositions are going to be for Chicago, then I began to shape them and I wrote a lot of the horn arrangements for them and made places in the compositions—as I’ve always done when I’ve written for Chicago—for the various people to shine whether it’s a guitar solo or a horn ensemble, or what have you. Once I made that decision, then I began to shape them into Chicago compositions.
“So much of composing and arranging is making a decision about the motif of the arrangement. I could certainly take something like ‘Crazy Happy’ and have shaped it into a bossa nova tune for a small ensemble and make it very intimate instead of big the way it is now on a Chicago album. For me, that’s the thrill and enjoyment of the fulfillment that composing provides for me.”
Others have spoken about “Now” as being the return of Lamm as a songwriter, but its title track—the best-received of the album thus far—was co-written by vocalist and bassist Jason Scheff, who replaced Peter Cetera when he left the band in 1985. “We were just touring in Europe,” says Lamm, “and ‘Now’ has become popular enough there via radio play that people were actually singing along with it.”
Guitarist Keith Howland, the most recent and longest-lasting of a series of guitarists that Chicago has had since original guitarist Terry Kath was killed in a gun accident in 1978, joined the band in 1995 and also co-wrote “Free at Last” with drummer Tris Imboden, who replaced original drummer Danny Seraphine in 1990. Loughnane, best known as a songwriter for the group’s 1974 hit “Call on Me,” wrote the track and single “America.”
Lamm likes to emphasize that songwriting for the band has always been a democratic process. “I wish that more of the songs of what I call the first phase of this new spirit of creativity had been written by others. I wish Pankow had written more songs, I wish that Lee had written more songs, I wish that everybody had jumped in with a little more output than they did. I do think there was a certain amount of dubiousness about whether or not this was going to be worth the effort. [Vocalist and keyboardist] Lou Pardini is a great songwriter and is very prolific, but he sort of held back a bit and I can’t blame him, because I was dubious as well. I just sort of jumped in with two feet. But this was a manifesto, sort of our response to the decimation of the music industry.”
“It’s a hard time for the music industry,” agrees Loughnane, “and the people who thought they had the ultimate power are now struggling to stay afloat. You see the CD sales have plummeted, the downloads don’t get counted on Billboard, SoundScan and stuff like that. So it’s a whole new wild, wild west of the music business. By putting together this rig, we are now able to make our own music with quality as good as any studio in the world.
“And when you know you’ll be able to record it, you feel more like creating something because someone else might actually hear it, too, so it has freed up the band as songwriters. We now have the freedom to write anything that we want, no matter what length it is, how many solos, whatever. Anything you want, any idea you want to put forth, it’s available to us now. Nobody is saying it should be a certain length, it should be a certain sound, it should be a ballad, it should be a tenor voice, it should not be a tenor voice. It doesn’t matter. It’s music and that’s what we’re doing. That’s closer to the beginnings of the band than having gone through many decades of working with record companies because they always have an opinion as to what something should be.
“‘Give us a hit,’ whatever that means. There is no ‘Give us a hit.’ After we did ‘If You Leave Me Now’ and it became a worldwide number-one hit, the record company said, ‘Can you do another one of those ‘If You Leave Me Now’s, that would be really good!” Well, yeah, it would, but that’s not how it works. That’s not where ‘If You Leave Me Now’ came from. It came through someone who had no idea that it was going to be number one in the world. No idea. Very gratifying that it was and still today when we play it, it is synonymous with Chicago. You say Chicago, they say, ‘If You Leave Me Now.’ Or Al Capone.”
The return to unfiltered material the band itself wants to record has produced a rawer, less slickly produced group sound reminiscent of its early years as well as a return to addressing topics right out of the headlines such as a do-nothing Congress in “America” and American over-extension into the Middle East with “Naked in the Garden of Allah.”
While Chicago was touring in Europe, the band happened to appear on the same bill with Johnny Winter outside of Vienna on what turned out to be his penultimate performance, as he passed away three days later. “He was on just before we went on and the dressing rooms were under the stage so we could hear every note,” says Lamm. “Some of the guys went and said hello to him before he went on. They were saying he didn’t look well, but once he started playing, he sounded great. One of those things. You don’t really think about mortality when you’re in a rock band that much. He went to the guitar-slinger’s heaven doing what he loved to do.”
The sale of Caribou Ranch, the recording studio built in the Colorado Rocky Mountains by Guercio where Chicago lived and recorded a series of platinum albums and from where the band hosted a number of television specials in the mid-1970s, also occurred while the band was in Europe.
“Jim Guercio had sold off about half the ranch, in years previous, to Boulder County to keep as parkland, which is great,” says Lamm. “That is something that Guercio believed in. Apparently the family that bought it is a very wealthy, very well-known family and they’re going to keep it as is. They’re not going to develop it, they’re going to keep it as a retreat. I knew something was in the works a few months ago. You know, things come and things go. We had the opportunity to create there for a number of years and we tried to make the most of it. It’s a beautiful place and it’s good to know that it will remain a beautiful place.”
Chicago is also completing a documentary being done by filmmaker Peter Pardini about the history of the band, which is expected out by the end of the year. All band members, past and present, have been invited to participate.
“Peter is making the documentary,” says Loughnane, “I’m just sort of trying to figure out how to get people, find phone numbers and set up interviews and then he goes and does it. When he turns the camera on, no one is telling Peter what to ask anybody, nothing. I’m staying out of it. I only say what I think and what I saw happen. That’s it. I am figuring that by the time I see it, I will learn more about our career and its intricacies than I ever knew because I was probably too drunk or stupid to figure it out at the time. It will be wide-ranging and to the point and everybody’s truth will come out and the public can decide whatever they want. It doesn’t matter to me what it is, but this will be our history, such as it is. Obviously some people are going to say one thing, and somebody else is going to say something else. And then people will have to decide what’s what. But we’re not going to have some judge in the middle to say, ‘This is what really happened.’ It will be different people offering their perceptions of what happened. As I’ve learned from Danny’s book [former drummer Danny Seraphine’s “Street Player”] that even if I’m standing in the same room, I don’t see the same thing go down. I don’t know what the other guy is thinking unless he tells me or until he writes it down.”
Meanwhile, Chicago will hit town on August 9 with another popular vintage Illinois-born band, REO Speedwagon. “If we compare touring with REO with our touring with the Doobies or Earth Wind & Fire, it’s a very different thing because we were aware of them being contemporaries of ours,” says Lamm. “REO came a little bit later, so we have less familiarity with their repertoire. But as we examined it, especially their live album called ‘Live at Moondance Jam,’ that’s really kind of impactful. Definitely a different approach to writing rock/pop than we’re used to and actually it’s going to be a challenge when we get into rehearsals with them and we figure out what songs of theirs we’re going to do with them, and what songs of ours they will do with us. Part of being in Chicago is being very flexible and having that skill to play any genre. It will be very musical and we will see this tour with REO as a challenge to our musicianship and I’m sure it will be a lot of fun.”
Given that it has been eight years since the last Chicago album of new material, does the presence of the Rig suggest speeding up that process?
“I don’t know,” admits Loughnane, “I have no idea. How long, short—or if—we ever finish another album. I know that everything is available to us to accomplish it and it is just a matter of putting time and effort in. If you don’t have the music, you don’t have anything. That’s something else that hasn’t changed. If you don’t have the songs, you have nothing.”
Chicago and REO Speedwagon perform August 9 at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island, 1300 South Lynn White, (312)540-2668. 7:30pm. $32.35 – $292.60. All ages.