Story and Photo by Scott A. Smith
Soft-rock jokes be banished: Chicago rocks — really rocks — in concert.
A still-strong staple of American popular music, Chicago stormed through a perfectly orchestrated set list April 18 for a sold-out, multi-generational audience at the Joint inside the Tulsa Hard Rock.
A seemingly endless sonic stream of hit singles and must-play LP cuts dominated the evening, with original band members Robert Lamm (vocals, keyboards), Walter Parazaider (saxophone, flute), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals), James “Jimmy” Pankow (trombone) and Lou Pardini (keyboards, vocals) playing as if they were invigorated, 20-year-old musicians. The lively horns were spot on throughout the concert.
No longer the “new guys” in Chicago, singer-bassist Jason Scheff, drummer Tris Imboden, guitarist Keith Howland and percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. also rose to the occasion of meeting fans’ expectations set long ago by Chicago’s rich, studio output. Scheff continues to embrace the near-impossible task of handling the vocals and roaming bass figures of former member Peter Cetera. Scheff’s voice was strong throughout the show, hitting peak moments on “Old Days,” “Just You ‘N’ Me,” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “Hard Habit to Break.”
Imboden and Reyes engaged in a playful, drumming dog-fight, and Howland soloed magnificently, bending notes during the heavy moments and providing padded, laid-back colors during the show’s quieter moments. Howland never once defaced the immortal six-string runs created by Chicago’s original guitarist, the late Terry Kath. Instead, Howland mirrored a healthy portion of the original guitar parts but had ample room to stretch and put his own stamp on the mid-range and top-end frequencies.
Chicago followers cheered as “Beginnings,” “You’re the Inspiration,” “Free,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” made the evening’s set list. Near the end of the two-hour gig, the bouncy, always-recognizable piano intro to “Saturday in the Park” commanded all to stand, clap and cheer, and a refreshing, Hammond organ-heavy sprint through the Spencer Davis Group/Steve Winwood chestnut “I’m A Man” proudly held traces of prime-era Santana.
For the breezy ballad, “If You Leave Me Now,” Chicago welcomed a female fan to the stage. The woman was the winning bidder for a chance to sing one song with Chicago; the band accepts winning bids from fans at each concert, with the money going to the American Cancer Society’s fight against breast cancer. Slightly nervous, the woman stood near Scheff, trading verses with the grinning bassist and winning cheers when she crooned, “Don’t leave me, Jason.”
Later, the stomping, appropriately placed encore of “25 or 6 to 4,” with its Cream-like verses and the outstanding, half-time beats of its chorus, won more loud responses from the friendly crowd.
I have friends who almost sneer at the mere mention of Chicago’s name, and I still don’t know why. Watching the smiling band love on their fans with terrific, inspired performances delivered via loud-yet-crystal-clear sound, it becomes apparent that Chicago is one of the few bands that, while playing on any of the world’s stages, can make every day feel like the Fourth of July.