LIVE: Chicago / REO Speedwagon @ SPAC, 7/31/18

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Review by Mark Alexander Hudson

Incredibly, Chicago is a band that is still going strong since forming in 1967. They have recorded countless albums (although they numbered them for a while to help keep track), have scored dozens of hits and in the recent 60th anniversary of the Billboard Hot 100 were ranked as the top American band, and No. 4 overall, behind only The Beatles, The Stones & the Bee Gees.

Not too shabby.

They are also road dogs, touring for most of the years they have been in existence, and they often include Greater Nippertown as a stop on their itinerary.

This 2018 tour is unique however, in that they are featuring the whole of their 1970 second album (actually called Chicago, but more commonly known as II) to open their set.

And it is a double album.

More of that later.

Opening the show was the affable Michael Tolcher, who played a pleasant if unremarkable country-tinged acoustic set.

Then came co-headliners REO Speedwagon. The band from Champaign, Illinois has also been around for a while and still boasts three members from their ’80s glory days – lead vocalist Kevin Cronin, bass player Bruce Hall and keyboardist Neal Doughty. The band is now rounded out by guitarist Dave Amato and the aptly named drummer Bryan Hitt.

It’s doubtful whether this somewhat workmanlike outfit would still be playing the circuit today had it not been for the incredible success of their 1980 album High Infidelity. This AOR chocolate box confection
virtually defined the genre and provided us all with the unavoidable power ballad “Keep on Lovin’ You.” The album was even a smash in my native England, a country normally impervious to the big guitar, big hair and big hook sound of ’80s American stadium rock.

The trick is, of course, that High Infidelity was a pop album pretending to be a rock album, with songs like “In Your Letter,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Grease soundtrack and other earworms like “Take It on the Run” and “Don’t Let Him Go.”

REO played all of the hits plus a couple of fairly unconvincing rockier tracks, like the leaden “Back on the Road Again,” bellowed by Hall, proving that the power ballads really are their strength. Cronin was a genial frontman, Saratoga sang along, they closed with a Tom Petty song and all was well.

For those in the crowd who had come to see a similar greatest hits presentation from Chicago, they would have been very confused by the aforementioned decision to play Chicago II front to back right out of the
gate.

Two things struck me:

1. Chicago II, which I had not listened to for years, is a politically charged, stunningly diverse and eclectic album, with an incredible range of influences, everything from jazz, blues and classical, to The Beatles and Hendrix.

2. The current line-up recreated this complex music amazingly well and were obviously having a ball pulling off this challenge.

There are a couple of well known songs on the album, “Colour My World” and “25 or 6 to 4,” but there are also lengthy instrumental work-outs, dizzying brass arrangements and multiple shared lead and harmony vocals. To say the 2018 version of Chicago passed the test is an understatement – they were magnificent.

Special shout out goes to two of the newer recruits, vocalists Neil Donell (a session singer from Canada) and Lou Pardini, who also handled keyboard duties. Between them they took on the original vocal parts of Terry Kath and Peter Cetera and did a terrific job reflecting both the soulful grit and the melodic power of the originals.

Speaking of originals, there are still three founding members of Chicago on stage – vocalist-keyboardist Robert Lamm, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and trombonist James Pankow. Together with Ray Hermann on sax and flute, the latter two formed a three-piece horn section that packed an incredible punch, filling out those tricky charts with a huge sound and bewildering ease.

The rest of the current line up is Keith Howland (guitar, vocals), Walfredo Reyes Jr. (drums), Brett Simons (bass, vocals) and Ramon Yslas (percussion). Every member was faultless, and the fun that the musicians were having on stage was contagious.

The second half of the show consisted of some favorite album cuts and, yes, a number of their ’80s hits, a decade when Chicago, too, discovered the ubiquitous power of the power ballad. There’s no denying that songs like “You’re the Inspiration” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” are cheesy, but it’s cheese of the highest quality, Roquefort rather than Velveeta, and Donell sang them impeccably.

After a two-hour set there was no encore, but nobody, I think, felt shortchanged. Both facets of Chicago had been on display – the hit machine of the ’80s and the powerful jazz fusion outfit of the ’70s. And it was a
reminder of just what a fine and talented group of musicians Chicago still is.

MICHAEL TOLCHER SET LIST
Baby
Watercolor World
Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)
This Is the Life
I Love You More Than Beer
For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)

REO SPEEDWAGON SET LIST
Don’t Let Him Go
In Your Letter
Keep Pushin’
Can’t Fight This Feeling
Tough Guys
Take It on the Run
Time for Me to Fly
Back on the Road Again
Ridin’ the Storm Out
Keep on Lovin’ You
Roll with the Changes
Listen to Her Heart (Tom Petty)

CHICAGO SET LIST
Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Make Me Smile > So Much to Say, So Much to Give > Anxiety’s Moment > West Virginia Fantasies > Colour My World > To Be Free > Now More Than Ever
Movin’ In
Poem for the People
In the Country
Wake Up Sunshine
Fancy Colours
Memories of Love
Where Do We Go from Here
(guitar solo)
It Better End Soon
25 or 6 to 4
Beginnings
Dialogue, Parts 1 & 2
Call on Me
If You Leave Me Now
Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is
You’re the Inspiration
I’m a Man (Spencer Davis Group)
(drum solo)
Just You n’ Me
Hard to Say I’m Sorry > Getaway
Saturday in the Park
Feelin’ Stronger Every Day

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