When they took the stage at Largo, Maryland’s Capital Centre in June, 1975, nostalgia was foremost on the minds of the members of Chicago. Early in the set so immaculately preserved by Rhino on the new Live in ’75 (Rhino Handmade RHM2 526436, 2011), comments are made from the stage with a great deal of surprise: “[Here’s] another blast from the past!” “Nostalgia is in nowadays.” “We would like to be nostalgic.” Would the Robert Lamm, Walter Parazaider, Lee Loughnane and James Pankow of 1975 been able to conceive that they’d be playing the very same songs in 2011 that formed the crux of their set in 1975? “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” a Chicago fixture now as then, was prefaced with “This song goes back very many years” – six, in fact! It’s clear that the members of Chicago didn’t expect their songs to have a shelf life of a whopping six years, yet those songs still are beloved today. (Of the song, it was added that “Terry hates it!”)
Peter Cetera, Terry Kath, Danny Seraphine, Lamm, Parazaider, Loughnane and Pankow burst onto the charts in 1969 as Chicago Transit Authority with an album of the same title. Cetera (bass), Kath (guitar), Lamm (keyboards) and Seraphine (drums) would have made one hell of a rock band, but when they were augmented by Loughnane (trumpet), Pankow (trombone) and Parazaider (woodwinds), they had a sound like none other. CTA, the album, announced their musical intentions in a big way. A 2-LP set, CTA was a fusion of rock, classical, jazz and pop, and introduced two of the band’s most enduring songs, both by Robert Lamm: “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is.” By the time of the 1975 joint tour with The Beach Boys, unofficially dubbed “Beachago,” Chicago was already on the way to becoming the biggest-selling American rock band in music history, and their set already resembled a “greatest hits.” In the excitingly paced marathon performance in Largo, Chicago packed in the hits but found room for their most recent release, Chicago VIII, too. From the performance captured on disc, Chicago’s energy never flagged as they vibrantly attacked one song after the next as if their lives depended on it.
The sheer musicianship of the band members is striking, as they perfectly coalesced as one unit. Their hunger to stay relevant despite playing “nostalgic” songs is palpable; their live performances were often polished enough to be studio recordings but with a raw energy and freedom that kept them from being mere replicas of those tracks. Kath’s guitar scorches throughout the 24 tracks over 2 discs, while Seraphine’s drums anchor the songs. He propels “Free” from its introduction, the horns keeping in perfect synch with him.
Those who have seen the band in concert in recent years will no doubt be surprised by the jazz-inspired approach. In 1975 Chicago was still flush with improvisational spirit. Loose jams broke out with great frequency, even on the soft rock staple “Just You ‘n’ Me,” a song which otherwise pointed to the band’s future adult contemporary direction. There’s an extended version of Lamm’s “25 or 6 to 4” and a 12+ minute take on “I’m a Man,” kicked up a notch from the Spencer Davis Group’s original. The entire set is performed at a high-octane level; the very first track, “Introduction,” features jazz, blues, funk and rock led by Terry Kath. There’s such dynamic interplay on this track that it sounds inconceivable that the harmony would eventually cease offstage. The forceful, driving “Now More Than Ever” lives up to its title. It concluded James Pankow’s “Ballet For a Girl in Buchannon,” including hits “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.” While the mini-song suite may be taken for granted now, it remains an ambitious calling card for a band determined to push musical boundaries. Read on after the jump!
The horn section had perfected their sound, as identifiable as that of any lead vocalist’s. But they had a lead vocalist to be reckoned with in the form of Peter Cetera. When Cetera used his tenor for rock, he positively wailed, trading with Kath on the soulful and funky “Ain’t It Blue.” He also tore it up on a cover of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” actually a key song that inspired the band’s formation. The familiar horn riff is unchanged, recalling CTA’s early years as a cover band. The song climbed the charts just three years later performed by Chicago’s future touring mates Earth Wind and Fire for the misbegotten Sgt. Pepper film. But Chicago’s Live in ’75 version makes a plausible case that Chicago could just as easily have had the hit.
Terry Kath, with his blazing guitar and dark, deep, pain-flecked vocals, almost stole the show, but each member got a chance to shine. Robert Lamm, whose 2003 solo album Subtlety and Passion may be the best Chicago album not recorded by Chicago, made his mark as both vocalist and songwriter. “Dialogue” showed off Lamm the writer at his most boldly relevant (“Don't you ever see the starvation in the city where you live, all the needless hunger, all the needless pain?”) with Kath and Cetera each voicing a distinct worldview. On his own “Beginnings,” Lamm had a bit of fun riffing on a Dennis Wilson favorite, “You Are So Beautiful.”
The only thing missing from Live in ’75 is the “Beach” part of “Beachago.” Sources have suggested that producer James William Guercio’s tapes of the Beach Boys’ set were lost in a fire. Whether that’s the case or it’s simply a licensing issue, none of The Beach Boys’ set is present, and that includes the concluding joint set. On a typical date from this tour, you might have heard “God Only Knows,” “California Girls,” “Darlin’” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” performed with the Chicago horn section, and Chicago performed “Saturday in the Park” with the Beach Boys backing. What has survived, though, are performances of the haunting “Wishin’ You Were Here” and triumphant “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” prefaced by an onstage introduction of The Beach Boys and some friendly banter apparently directed at Mike Love.
Live in ’75 is a deluxe, classy creation in every respect, and its design is a match for 2005’s reissue of Chicago at Carnegie Hall. Like that package, it’s housed in a sturdy box with the logo embossed on the cover. There’s a mini-LP jacket inside for the discs, plus a copiously-annotated booklet and even a large foldout poster. Ben Edmonds’ essay is entertaining if short on information as to the recording of the concert and the circumstances leading to this first-ever release 36 years after it was recorded. Charles Benson mastered the set and Rhino stalwart Andrew Sandoval is credited with mixing. The power of the performances transcends any flaws in the live sound quality. (May I suggest that a Handmade edition of the much-coveted Live in Japan conclude a majestic Chicago live trilogy?)
Live in ’75 ends a bit abruptly after “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.” But the song is actually a perfect sendoff to this remarkable new addition to the Chicago canon. “So now the time has come/For both of us to live on the run…” Chicago certainly was embracing life on the edge in 1975, leading to the band’s fracture and Terry Kath’s tragic death in 1978. But that was still in the future. “And knowing that you would have wanted it this way/I do believe I’m feelin’ stronger every day!” On evidence of Live in ’75, I don’t believe a single person in the Largo Centre stadium would have disagreed.