By the Way

5 ways Chicago “laissez les bon temps rouler” at the Saenger in New Orleans

Jeff Coffey of Chicago performs in front of a sold-out crowd Tuesday at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans.
Jeff Coffey of Chicago performs in front of a sold-out crowd Tuesday at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans. jclark@sunherald.com

There’s something about the Saenger Theater in New Orleans that is magical, especially after 2013’s $53 million renovation. It’s a beautiful theater, with it’s “night sky” high ceiling and ornate Greco-Roman statues and fixtures. It also has state-of-the-art acoustics, which definitely increases its appeal.

Then there’s the city itself — there’s no city like New Orleans in the world. It’s a melting pot of food and music and art and culture. The city’s charms do not go unrecognized, especially with musicians. You can always count on topnotch shows in New Orleans. For example, Billy Joel basically wrote a love letter to the city during his show in February.

Expectations were high for Chicago’s sold-out Tuesday night performance at the Saenger. And the band more than delivered.

Here are five reasons why Chicago brought the musical voodoo to the Saenger:

Jeff Coffey

Chicago are a tried and true American institution like, in many ways, the Dallas Cowboys. I’m pretty certain Chicago guitarist Keith Howland, a longtime fan of the Kansas City Chiefs, would cringe at that statement, so I’ll explain.

Peter Cetera was the band’s original singer and bassist. He was a fan favorite and a great singer. He sang lead vocals on the band’s biggest hits, including “If You Leave Me Now” and “You’re the Inspiration.” Cetera left the band in 1985. If he were a Cowboys quarterback, he would be Roger Staubach. But Staubach has long since retired and the team continued playing without him.

Cetera was replaced by Jason Scheff, who spent more than 30 years with the band before his departure in 2016. Scheff was another player on team Chicago who helped keep the band rolling.

Scheff was replaced by a relatively unknown rookie named Jeff Coffey. When whatever went down with Scheff went down, Coffey, who has played in a band with ties to Biloxi, was thrust into the big leagues on a “temporary” basis. Much like a young quarterback named Dak Prescott, who spent his last few years playing at Mississippi State and replaced veteran Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, Coffey stepped up, assumed the role as the band’s bass player and tenor singer and was named a permanent member of the band. He never looked back. We thank Scheff and Romo for their time on the team and we move forward.

If you need a reason to see Chicago on any of their upcoming dates, including a summer tour with the Doobie Brothers, it’s Jeff Coffey. He was the MVP of Tuesday’s show, shining as a rookie in a crew full of veterans — Chicago has, after all, been together for 50 years. It’s not that he hogged the spotlight or did anything to draw attention to himself — he just played his instrument really well and sang in a manner that brought new life to the Chicago “classics.”

You could tell the other guys in the band were proud of him. I was proud of him and I had never met him. In fact, I had a lengthy conversation after the show with founding member Lee Loughnane about how great Coffey is at phrasing and the new energy he’s added to the band. Loughnane, who seemed like a proud papa, had nothing but praise for the band’s new singer.

Coffey’s MVP moment was on the Cetera-era classic “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long.” It received his first of many standing ovations.

“Wake Up Sunshine”

Chicago dusted off this deep cut from 1970’s “Chicago” (“Chicago II”) album Tuesday night. For longtime fans of the band, this was a real treat, with dual vocals from founding member Robert Lamm and Coffey.

‘Time capsule’ good

If a band’s been making music for 50 years, you would expect them to have a few hits and Chicago has many. It’s music that’s survived the tests of time — it’s time capsule good.

If hearing “Saturday in The Park” doesn’t make you happy and want to get up and dance, then don’t go to a Chicago show. It was refreshing to see the entire band smiling and having fun in New Orleans. They also had a light show that added a new dimension to the stage show.

Plus, the band has great songs and director Peter Pardini’s documentary has introduced them to a new audience — people love the documentary.

It was topic of a recent conversation I had with my friend Mickey Raphael, who has played harmonica with Willie Nelson for more than 40 years. My man Tony Orlando, who I survived a “false casino fire” with, said Chicago is his “favorite band” and also raved about the documentary.

There’s a renewed interest in the music of Chicago.

Only the beginning

One of the most iconic moments you can see in modern music is when Lamm and Howland strap on the 12-string acoustics and Lamm steps up to the mic to sing “Beginnings.” After 50 years, it never sounds old. Drummer Tris Imboden and percussionist Wally Reyes lay down a Latin groove that’s smooth and tight, leaving plenty of room for Jimmy Pankow’s trombone solo and a bass breakdown by Coffey.

Keith Howland

Howland has some big shoes to fill on a nightly basis and he does so with perfection in his neon pink and green sneakers. He’s a guy who loves playing guitar and is especially respectful and knowledgeable of the Terry Kath catalog. In a recent interview with Lamm, he called him something of a “guitar geek.” It’s no secret that Howland, Imboden, Reyes, keyboardist/singer Lou Pardini and woodwind player Ray Herman have breathed new life into the band.

After the show, I asked the band members to sign a vinyl copy of “Chicago II,” the album I happened to bring with me. After I was introduced to Coffey by his wife, Holly, he told Howland he, “always feels weird signing the old records.”

Howland told him, “You’ll get used to it.” I, too, am certain Coffey will adapt.

I usually send Howland a text after a show to let him know how much I enjoyed it. Tuesday night was no exception as the requisite text was sent around midnight.

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