By the Way

This Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band is getting ‘stronger everyday’ in its 51st year of performing

Chicago performs at the Raising Cane’s River Center in Baton Rouge on Friday, March 16, 2018.
Chicago performs at the Raising Cane’s River Center in Baton Rouge on Friday, March 16, 2018.

Why was a Christian group protesting the Chicago show Friday night outside of the Raising Cane’s River Center?

Let’s back up and start at point A and we’ll get there.

There was on Friday a lot of activity on Government Street a few blocks from the Raising Cane’s River Center — a lot of activity.

For starters, there was a traffic jam that had cars at a complete standstill about a half a mile from the River Center’s parking garage. I knew the Chicago show was sold out, but I was taken aback by the amount of children and families walking along Government Street to the venue. But, I found it encouraging that parents were taking their kids to see the greatest (superlative alert!) “rock band with horns.”

But I was not prepared for the Christian protesters that were set up in front of the venue. Again I pose the question: why was a Christian group protesting Chicago? Did they hate rock and roll? Were they aligned with (former singer and bassist) Peter Cetera?

It was my shirt, right? I did happen to be wearing my T-shirt that said “Oh My My, Oh Hell Yes,” and if I have to explain what that means then you’ve probably read too far down in this review. I appreciate your time, as I know it is valuable. But it’s a nod to the late Tom Petty.

And by the way, I was severely under-dressed for the rock show, but I’ll get to that, too.

I also thought that they could see into my soul and they knew — that I was a diehard Crimson Tide fan deep in enemy LSU Tigers territory. Roll Tide, y’all.

In reality, the protesters were there to show their ire with the performance of Christian rapper Toby Mac, which explains why there were so many children outside the venue. Toby Mac was performing in the River Center’s almost-10,000 seats arena and Chicago was in the 2,000 seat theater, which was sold out.

The Chicago show was a benefit for the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra and was a part of the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation Great Performers in Concert series. About 40-60 percent of the crowd was in black tie and evening wear. This explains why I was under-dressed. But when the lights go down and the band hits the stage, the dress code doesn’t matter.

Here’s what you need to know about the 2018 Chicago tour.

Chicago II

The 2018, like most “Evening with Chicago shows” is two sets with an intermission, all of which lasts just under three hours. Set one is a performance of the band’s self-tilted second album “Chicago,” which is known as “Chicago II.” Released in 1970, the album went to No. 4 on the album charts in the U.S and was nominated for three Grammys. It is a fan favorite in Chicago lore.

It was remixed by British producer Steven Wilson in 2016 and released by Rhino Records in 2017.

“It’s not really a remix, because he was just really working with a stereo master,” said Chicago founding member Robert Lamm. “He was able to bring out certain aspects of what was really an 8-track recording. And, by the way, that remix has been very favorably reviewed by some of the most demanding music journalists around.

The band performed the album for the PBS show “Soundstage” for its 11th season. The Chicago episode is schedule to start airing on PBS stations in April.

But that was a different band than the one that performed Friday in Baton Rouge, Chicago’s first show of 2018 in the South.

I’ll get to that eventually.

And from the first notes of “Movin’ In” to the set’s closer, Chicago recreated the album in its entirety. And they did so masterfully.

Highlights from the set included “Poem for The People,” “In The Country” and, of course, “Ballet For A Girl in Buchannon.”

The real highlights of the set were the deep cuts “It Better End Soon” and “Memories of Love,” both of which leaned heavily on the influence of the late, great Terry Kath. Guitraist Keith Howland did an excellent job of recreating Kath’s funkly guitar work on “It Better End Send,” finding a deep groove pocket on what is one of the band’s funkier tunes with new drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr. and new bassist Brett Simons.

Howland, on acoustic guitar, was also featured on “Memories of Love” with keyboardist/voalist Lou Pardini. The two rearranged the song as a straight acoustic number and the result was a haunting tribute to Kath and the loss of love. For longtime fans of the band, it was a special moment.

The new guys

In the ever-evolving organic history of the band, there have been some major changes in 2018. But that’s OK. There are diehard Chicago purists who think the band has never been any good since Kath died, and those who think it has suffered since Cetera left or it’s all been downhill since original drummer and founding member Danny Seraphine left and on and on. I’m pretty certain that somewhere right now someone is till lamenting the departure of former guitarist Dawayne Bailey.

It’s all good.

The Baton Rouge show was the first I’ve seen since longtime drummer Tris Imboden and singer/bassist Jeff Coffey announced they were leaving Chicago earlier this year. Both are excellent players and great guys — I’ve been around them many times — but life, and the band, goes on.

Coffey was pulling the Cetera duties, meaning he was playing bass and singing the tenor vocals. He replaced Jason Scheff in 2016, who replaced Cetera when he left the group in 1985. That role has now been split by Simons on bass and Canadian singer Neil Donell.

Reyes, the band’s longtime percussionist, has moved into the drummer slot in Imboden’s absence and he forms a pocket with Simons and Howland that’s deep and full of grooves. Simons is a great bass player — you don’t get to play with both Brian Wilson and Chicago without a certain skill set. And it was nice to Reyes make the leap from percussion to behind the drum kit.

And that leaves Donell.

Donell is a singer’s singer. He’s phenomenal (superlative alert!). He breathes new life into the Chicago hits catalog with little things such as bending notes, extending notes, vocal runs — he uses his voice like an instrument. Donell also plays acoustic guitar a few times throughout the night. With the addition of Simons, who also sings backing vocals and Donell, the band has never sounded fuller. And this is coming from someone who loves both the Scheff and Coffey eras.

There’s been some chatter on the internet that “Donell doesn’t sound enough like Cetera, blah, blah, blah” and that’s total nonsense. I’ve seen Cetera recently and even Cetera doesn’t sound like vintage Cetera and that’s OK. He’s still amazing and Donell is one of the best tenors in rock and roll.

Plus, Donell has biceps the size of cannonballs. I would be careful what you say about him. Actually, he’s a very nice man, so he’s probably not going to drag you behind the bus and kick your butt for throwing shade at him, but just know that he could.

I was talking to Lamm about the new sound and his new bandmates after the show and he said, “They’re great. I’m the weakest link now.”

The bottom line

If you love Chicago, you’ll love this incarnation of the band — Lamm, Howland, Donell, Reyes, Simons, Pardini, Ray Hermann and original members Jimmy Pankow and Lee Loughnane. And if you love Chicago and live in the South, you’ll have a chance to see them May 9 in Mobile and May 11 in New Orleans.

As long as Lamm and company keep the show on the road, I’ll be there.

But the current version of the band sounds huge and they all seem to be having a lot of fun. I hope they keep this one rolling into the future.