Chicago revisit their signature second LP on an exciting new live collection
Does anybody really listen to Chicago anymore? Does anybody really care? Like many bands from the 1960s and ‘70s, Chicago has changed members so often that you can’t even pretend that you’re hearing a version of the original album, Chicago (which later became known as Chicago II), on this album, Chicago II: Live on Soundstage.
Two of Chicago’s best musicians, and founding members—Terry Kath on guitar and Peter Cetera on bass—supplied whatever fire the original album had. Even back in 1970 when the original was released, many rock fans couldn’t call this rock and roll. The band captured the attention of rockers who liked their rock light and not heavy. Fans of the band could pretend that this was jazz-rock because of what sounded like intricate horn charts; but these were mostly little more than soul horns turned in the direction of jazz; some of the riffs are simple and repetitive and can get boring. Many of the songs met the criterion of far-outness required of rock lyrics at the time—what the hell did “25 or 6 to 4” really mean?—or possessed the psychedelic flavor of the times—“Fancy Colours”—or delivered an anthem to the ideals of peace, love, and community—“Poem for the People.” The album also featured “Colour My World,” a song that garage bands practiced and played over and over at weddings, graduations, bar mitzvahs and teen parties, and illustrated just how schmaltzy rock music could sound. Chicago took listeners down a different path in 1970, opening the door to bands such as Blood, Sweat, and Tears, the Ides of March, the Electric Flag, and numerous others, but their music reached a tedious mediocrity as early as Chicago and soon devolved into smarmy pop diversions such as “Saturday in the Park,” “If You Leave Me Now,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and “Just You ‘n’ Me.” Chicago invented “yacht rock” even before critics started using this phrase to describe the easygoing, light, decidedly unrocking fare of bands whose time had passed but whose music still stirred feeling among listeners who never wanted their music to challenge them too much.
Despite Chicago’s middle-of-the-road music, their second album contains some of their most memorable music and several songs that were hit singles for the band. So, it’s no mystery that the current incarnation of the band chose Chicago II as the album they’d play in its entirety when the band visited WTTW-TV studios in Chicago in 2017 to perform on the network’s Soundstage series. The band successfully plays an almost note-for-note version of the album in this live performance, which on the one hand is boring, but on the other is exactly what the adoring fans want—and, to be honest, illustrate the limitations that come with the territory of performing on the show. The band plays the album in order straight through from the opener, “Movin’ In,” to the closer, “25 or 6 to 4.” Punchy horns kick off “Movin’ In,” laying down the musical theme that they’ll repeat through the song, moving the sound on the song’s bridge to an urban jazz and mimicking the sounds of the street; the vocals feature a call-and-response chorus that lift the music in a soulful direction. “In the Country” rocks the hardest on the entire album and captures a moment of the band’s potential as a rock band; the song would have been better without the horns, which sound like an afterthought to the sonic structure of the song and bring the sound down.
The centerpiece of the album–and this performance–is “Ballet for a Girl in Bucahnnon,” a seven-song cycle that includes songs that became hits, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.” The cycle opens energetically with “Make Me Smile,” and features a guitar solo on the bridge that moves the song away from slavish interpretation of the original version; it slides into “So Much to Say, So Much to Give,” a galloping little chorus that pleads for the lovers to live for today. The theme cycles through the instrumental tunes “Anxiety” and “West Virginia Fantasies,” which elides into the prom-night slow dance classic “Color My World,” and you can hear the audience swoon. The song cycle illustrates one of Chicago’s early traits, and a characteristic that won many fans and set them apart from many other rock bands: they strove to adapt the structures of classical music and jazz to rock music, finding similar sonic themes in the two seemingly disparate musical worlds.
“25 or 6 to 4” closes the album with its power rock guitar riffs kicking off the song and leading into these memorable towering horns. Yet, the other rocker on the album might have been a better closer: “It Better End Soon,” a four-movement raw guitar-driven musical suite about the troubles in the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As good as it is, though, the title of the song describes the listener’s feeling about the album, too: “it better end soon, my friend.”
As live albums go, Chicago II: Soundstage captures the energy of the band’s performance with a clarity often lacking in the muddy sound of other live albums. Even so, the album illustrates the promise and the disappointment inherent in the band’s music; it could rock when it wanted to, but it also could roll over into pop and schmaltz far too often for its own good. When Chicago retires or when its members fade away into other parts of their lives, will their music matter? Probably not, since even the best songs on this album are mostly forgotten as soon as the grooves wind down.