By the Way

50 years after its release 'Chicago II' sounds better than ever at New Orleans show

Chicago performs at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans on Friday, May 11, 2018.
Chicago performs at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans on Friday, May 11, 2018. jclark@sunherald.com

Performing an album in its entirety can be a somewhat daunting task because there's always the risk of alienating some of the fan base, particularly the newer fans. The results can be varied. Sometimes it's a "miss," such as when Yes digs deep into its catalog, while at other times it's a hit like Ryan Adams' recent show at the Saenger Theater where he ambitiously performed the Rolling Stones' classic "Exile on Main Street."

And it works for Chicago. The band hit the Saenger Theater on Friday to perform "Chicago II" in its entirety for the sold-out crowd as well as a set of hits.

It's been almost 50 years since principal members Robert Lamm, Jimmy Pankow and Lee Loughnane released the double album with bandmates Terry Kath, Danny Seraphine and Peter Cetera. The album has been nominated for a Grammy Hall of Fame, much like "Chicago Transit Authority" was a few years ago.

"Chicago II" was recently remixed by producer Steven Wilson and released by Rhino Records. So it makes sense that the band would want to tackle the album live.

From the opening track of "Movin' In" to "Where Do We Go From Here," the closer on side four, the 10-piece Chicago took the risk of playing deep cuts and fan favorites, with the album hits "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World," both from the suite "Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon," and "25 or 6 to 4" getting huge responses.

Keyboardist and vocalist Lou Pardini handled most of the vocals during the set, as the album was heavily influenced by the late Kath. Lamm took his turn on a few of the songs including "Poem for The People" and "Wake Up Sunshine," with new vocalist Neil Donell shining on the Cetera numbers such as "The Road" and "25 or 6 to 4."

The spirit of Kath was all over the set, from guitarist Keith Howland's guitar playing on "It Better End Soon" to an acoustic rendition of "Memories of Love" featuring Pardini and Howland.

After a 20-minute break, Chicago returned to the stage with Lamm on acoustic guitar and lead vocals for 1969's "Beginnings." The hits set, which was 14 songs long, included most of the classics including "If You Leave Me Now," "Call on Me," "Hard Habit To Break," "Saturday in The Park" and "Just You and Me."

The band last played Louisiana in March with a show in Baton Rouge to benefit the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra and was a part of the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation Great Performers in Concert series. The Baton Rouge show was early in the tour and the band seemed a tad more relaxed in New Orleans with Donell taking some chances vocally that totally paid off. New bassist Brett Simons adds a new groove to the band that works perfectly with the in-the-pocket drumming of Walfredo Reyes.

And you can't fake the groove in New Orleans — it's a city that takes its music seriously. It is, after all, the city that claims to have invented clapping on the "two and four" — the back beat. To get a crowd on their feet and dancing in New Orleans is easy enough — the city loves to dance — but to keep them there is a pretty remarkable feat.

Chicago had the crowd dancing in the aisles for most of the second set.

The vocals in this incarnation of Chicago are extremely powerful with Simons and Donell adding a new depth to the harmonies. There's a moment during "Just You and Me" where almost the entire band is singing together — Lamm, Howland, Loughnane, Pankow, Simons, Pardini and Donell — that's pretty magical.

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