When Chicago arrived on the music scene in 1969 with their debut album, Chicago Transit Authority, theirs was a hard-charging, horn-driven sound that, while linked in the public mind with the simultaneously popular Blood, Sweat & Tears, was actually something new and different. When founding member Jimmy Pankow called me in late August, he explained what set the band apart:
“I was a trombone player as a young kid. I was in marching band, concert band, then I got into jazz and became a pickup player with jazz people coming through Chicago. When Walt Parazaider approached me with this idea of forming a rock and roll band with a lead voice type of horn section, it was very intriguing—to be able to play the music of my peers, which was pop music, on a trombone! That hadn’t been done before.
“So we talked about how we were going to approach this and I guess I inherited the reins of creating this brass approach because that was my expertise within the band. I decided to approach the horns as a main character in the story of every song. So the horns are almost like that other vocal that happens right with and around the vocals. Rather than an afterthought, which most people approached it as, I approached it as a lead character in the song.
“Little did I know that we’d been playing these things back-to-back for two hours plus every night. And I forgot rests! So we’re blowing our brains out every night!”
He and his bandmates will be blowing their musical brains out at the Pavilion in Portsmouth on Friday night, September 26th. Longtime fans know what an exhilarating night of music awaits, and Pankow says new listeners are still discovering the band in their forty-sixth year on the road.
“How do you get up there every night,” he asked rhetorically, “and not go nuts playing ‘Saturday in the Park’? There are people who may not have ever seen Chicago live. They come to a show and see another side to this band. If you only know us on radio, you know the power ballads. That’s what radio embraced. That’s all they played: ‘Inspiration,’ ‘Hard Habit to Break,’ ‘Hard to Say I’m Sorry,’ ba-da-bing. We have people coming to the show and they see the other side of the band: this hard-driving musicality that is full of energy and all kinds of exciting moments that were not portrayed as our music on radio. We see that energy in the crowd as we are able to kick out the jams and show that other side of us.
“We look out and see people relating to each other because they are reliving that moment that these songs represent in their lives. These songs have become the fabric of life, a phenomenon that we never would have expected or predicted. People are coming to celebrate these special moments in their lives with us. That’s what keeps it fresh. We see that communion happening every night before our very eyes. People from 15 to 75 are all making connections to this music. It’s the fruition of what we do. That’s the gift, that’s the pull that keeps us going out here every year. It just gets more and more rewarding.”
While the band released an excellent new album this summer called NOW: Chicago XXXVI, Pankow acknowledges that it’s the band’s huge catalog of hits that keeps the crowds coming. Concerts often open with his extended suite from the second album, a fan favorite since its release in 1970.
“The Ballet for a Girl in Buckhannan County resulted in two hits,” he said, “‘Make Me Smile’ and ‘Color My World.’ That was inspired by an insane relationship I had with a young lady who attended the University of West Virginia at Buckhannan. She was actually a Chicago girl. My sister introduced me to her and we dated in Chicago. My career took me to L.A. and her studies took her to West Virginia, hence the song resulted. The last I heard, she wound up marrying some Air Force pilot, they kicked out a slew of kids. I don’t know where they live. I don’t know if she knows that she inspired that song; I would think she did.”
With the four original members—Pankow, sax and fluteman Parazaider, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and singer-keyboardist Robert Lamm—having played together since 1967 and most of the “new guys” actually having been around for twenty years or more, Chicago is more like a family than simply a band.
“It is a serious relationship,” Jimmy Pankow told me. “It’s mutual respect as musicians and as people. We allow each other our differences. Each of us is a different individual but the one commonality is our goal to keep this band intact. We have disagreements—that’s life. But as long as we communicate, not only among the four of us who started this thing, but the rest of the guys as well…Just as in a marriage, if you communicate the road stays relatively smooth. Every now and then you have to close your eyes and remember how lucky, how blessed, you are to be able to do something that you are so passionate about and put food on the table.
“I knew I wanted to do music all of my life and here I am living the dream.”
Friday, September 26 – 8:00 pm
nTelos Wireless Pavilion, Portsmouth
Tickets: $29.75 – 89.75