This year, Chicago announced a first in their touring history. The band would play their second album, Chicago (or Chicago II), in full, at each concert to mark the group's ongoing 50th anniversary festivities. The celebration has continued via archival releases as well, and following last year's stellar Quadio, Rhino Records has just issued VI Decades Live: This is What We Do, the first-ever box set of live recordings from the band's storied history on four CDs and one DVD.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first two CDs are worth the price of admission here. The August 28, 1970 concert at the Isle of Wight Festival (where the band shared that day's bill with Procol Harum, James Taylor, Melanie, and others) thrust the spotlight upon a group with just two albums under its collective belt. The sound of Robert Lamm, Terry Kath, Peter Cetera, Danny Seraphine, James Pankow, Lee Loughnane, and Walt Parazaider was a new one. Chicago may not have been the first "rock band with horns," but it was no doubt the most innovative. The Isle of Wight show captures the original line-up at their hungriest and most politically charged, taking no prisoners with a raw, gritty, and immediate blaze of sound and fury.
This is certainly the finest commercial release to replicate the hard-hitting experience of an early Chicago concert, with solidly listenable sound from a less-than-ideal live source. (Some have felt the sound to be overly processed; ultimately, it's a matter of taste, but those on the fence are encouraged to read this interview with engineer and Chicago collaborator Tim Jessup in which he explains his sonic choices.) Robert Lamm's remarkable songwriting dominates the concert, as does Terry Kath's blazing guitar, though never to the detriment of the ensemble performances. Lamm's "South California Purples" is as blistering as his "Beginnings" is blissful. The latter (one of the four or five songs here that remain a staple of Chicago concerts to this day) crackles with spontaneity and a joyful energy. The melodic song might be at its root (like so many of Lamm's greatest compositions) a pop song, but the approach here is pure rock. The driving "In the Country" showcases Kath and Cetera's fiery interplay (they co-wrote it, as well) and the full-length, seven-part "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon" (including "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World") is, then as now, a showstopper.
"Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" is prefaced by its extended, roughly four-minute "Free Form Intro," accentuating the jazz part of the jazz-rock equation. The vocals throughout the Isle of Wight show have particular clarity, with Lamm's bright lead on "Does Anybody Know..." being no exception. Socially conscious material inspired some of the best performances here. "Mother" features some tasty trombone from James Pankow; "It Better End Soon" (extended from its ten-and-a-half-minute album length to around fifteen minutes) has Terry Kath at his most impassioned not to mention a standout for Walt Parazaider on flute. The concert concludes with two tracks that could be found at a Chicago encore today - the fast and furious pair of "25 or 6 to 4" and The Spencer Davis Group cover "I'm a Man," the latter with Danny Seraphine laying down a fiery solo at the drum kit.
Discs 3 and 4 present 18 songs drawn from Chicago concerts from 1969-2014, with an emphasis on lesser-known material (the main exceptions being "25 or 6 to 4" from Paris' Olympia Hall in late 1969 and the Peter Cetera-led "If You Leave Me Now" from the Oakland Coliseum in 1977, when the ballad was just a year and a half old). These discs are a bit of a musical and sonic potpourri. The first three tracks are all from the aforementioned Olympia Hall show, with two (the brash "25 or 6 to 4" and the pleading "Poem for the People") previewing Chicago (or Chicago II). The third Paris cut is the instrumental "Liberation." Listening to Kath's searing, harsh licks on the roughly 16-minute composition, it's easy to see why Jimi Hendrix counted himself as a fan. (His playing on "25 or 6 to 4" is no less impressive.)
The band's jazz background heavily informs the rich flavor of the Lamm-penned "Goodbye," recorded at Washington, DC's Kennedy Center in fall 1971 before the song's release on Chicago V the following year. Another V tune, Pankow's "Now That You've Gone" as recorded at Australia's Hordern Pavilion is a rhythmic treat that spotlights the contribution of each member of the group despite less than optimal sound. The third V selection, Lamm's "A Hit by Varese," pays further tribute to its 20th century-classical inspiration (and Frank Zappa influence) Edgard Varese in an epic 16-minute version, including a lengthy introduction and expansive jam. However, the seemingly audience-sourced sound on this 1973 performance from Chicago Stadium is muddy and distant, diluting its evident, raw power. Disc Two ends with a pair of tracks from the band's December 1, 1977 show in Oakland, California. Less than two months later, Terry Kath would be tragically gone. It's appropriate that his "Takin' It on Uptown" is the disc's final track.
Chicago was quickly back on its feet despite the tremendous loss, and the third disc of this collection opens with two tracks from Los Angeles' Greek Theater from summer '78. (This August 11 concert was captured on radio.) Lamm's "Hot Streets" would soon grace an album of that name; Danny Seraphine and David "Hawk" Wolinski's "Little One" had closed out Chicago XI. The former's bright, polished sound (featuring Donnie Dacus on guitar, Walter Parazaider on flute, and Peter Cetera's oft-underrated bass) underscores how much the band had changed since the early years. The latter is enhanced by a full orchestra under the baton of Bill Conti (Rocky) and is one of the most unusual and strong cuts here.
The period of 1979-1986, perhaps the most transitional and transformative of Chicago's career once Peter Cetera assumed the nominal lead in the band, is sadly overlooked as the set picks up with a truncated "Forever" from Chicago 18, by which point several personnel changes had occurred - most notably the departure of Cetera after a string of soft rock hits, and the addition of Bill Champlin. 18 was the last of the band's David Foster-produced albums, so his influence is all but entirely absent on this box.
Highlights of this disc include an R&B/soul medley from 1987 with plenty of stretching out and a staggering Seraphine solo that culminates in "Get Away," the uptempo coda of the missing mega-hit "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," the Champlin-led top ten hit "You're Not Alone" from Chicago 19, and Robert Lamm and Jason Scheff's uptempo "The Pull" from the onetime "lost" album Stone of Sisyphus. A couple of big band tracks from 1994 are fine genre exercises, and the CD debut of the acoustic "Look Away" from A&E Live by Request (the 2002 concert has been previously released on DVD) offers a new look at the ballad. The audio portion of the box concludes with Lee Loughnane's 2014 "America." It's a full circle moment, as the lyric reasserts Chicago's social conscience ("The dream is fading before our eyes/Take some time to revive it...") in a very different era than when the band first formed.
The final offering in the box is a DVD of Chicago's February 12, 1977 performance on Germany's Rockpalast. The concert is presented in mono sound and 480p video in its original broadcast ratio. Over two hours, the band powers through nineteen songs from Chicago Transit Authority through their then most recent album, Chicago X, with a preview of Chicago XI. Naturally, the emphasis here is on X, with five now-hidden gems from that LP: "Skin Tight," "You Are on My Mind," "Scrapbook," "Hope for Love," and "Once or Twice." Before an appreciative but not intrusive audience, the original seven-person line-up plus percussionist Laudir de Oliveira (an official member between 1974 and 1981) showcases the various strains of Chicago's music - from the cinematic swell of "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long" to the Latin-flavored, mellow "Call on Me," romantic "If You Leave Me Now," experimental "A Hit by Varese" and raucous "25 or 6 to 4." (Sign of the times: Kath is smoking a cigarette as he furiously wields his axe on the latter!) Among the encores is a Cetera-led rendition of The Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life," with Chicago paying homage to a horn-rock tune that came before them. It's a joy to see the band not only firing on all cylinders but operating as one truly soulful unit. There's one brief, three-minute bonus clip on the DVD of "What's This World Comin' To" from the Chicago in the Rockies television special.
Chicago: VI Decades Live is attractively housed in a foldout-style package, with a separate 24-page, colorful booklet loaded with rare photographs and memorabilia as well as a too-short essay by compilation producer Jeff Magid. Dave Donnelly has handled the CD mastering; audio fluctuates between mono and stereo on Discs Three and Four. A disclaimer for some of the track sources might have tamped down potential criticism of the set, as indeed, the historical significance of these recordings does in most cases outweigh the sonic deficiencies. One hopes that full releases are in the offing for the shows represented here with professional-quality audio, as well as the other complete shows (such as Tanglewood 1970) languishing in the vaults. Especially with the proliferation of unauthorized European concert discs derived from radio and television broadcasts, proper releases are certainly in order.
This collection is more a sampler than a definitive document - but that's hardly a criticism, as the band's musical history is far too sprawling for only one set, even one as generous, disc-wise, as this. With Chicago still playing packed houses today, it's clear that their music remains relevant - now more than ever.