In 2017, Chicago got together for a celebratory dinner to mark their 50th year as a band. That sort of longevity puts them in a very exclusive club of bands still on the scene—the Rolling Stones, The Who, and a handful of ’60s pop acts with perhaps their frontman or key songwriter the only remaining band member.
“We’re the ones that have worked every year,” says Chicago trumpet player Lee Loughnane. “The Stones haven’t even done that.”
But far from feeling like there’s nothing left to prove, Loughnane said Chicago’s accomplishments only push him to get better on his instrument and help the band improve as a live act. “So many people have come up to me and said that I was responsible—not only the band, but me personally—for them playing their instrument or getting into music. That makes me want to work harder at it, because there’s no going back from there...The harder you work at it, the more you know it’s possible to keep raising the bar. You’re just never satisfied with the progress. You’ve got to keep getting better.”
Photo by Peter C. Pardini
Loughnane and the other members of Chicago are getting their share of opportunity to prove themselves to audiences once again this spring as the band returns to the road for a headlining tour. Live shows over the past year have been different than any Chicago has played, with the main set devoted to the group’s entire second album, Chicago II. It marks the first time Chicago has played one of its albums front-to-back on a tour.
“It has been something other artists have done, and we have discussed it for years and always decided against it because we didn’t feel it would be compelling enough to hold an audience’s attention. But we were wrong. Very simple, we were completely wrong.”
The group then follows up with what’s being billed as the world’s longest encore—an hour-long selection of hits. “It’s amazing that even doing another hour of hits, there’s still many that are left out. We could do two hours.”
The performance of Chicago II won’t be the only thing that’s new for fans. They’ll also see a lineup that has undergone several changes. Drummer Tris Imboden and bassist/singer Jeff Coffey recently departed, but Loughnane feels the group has found more-than-capable replacements. “The tenor vocals are now with a Canadian named Neil Donell. He’s an excellent vocalist, and he’s been performing in Canada and various other places with orchestras and tribute bands for years and years.
“And Brett Simons is now our bass player. He does high harmony background vocals as well. He’s a great bass player. He’s played with Melissa Etheridge and many other top-name artists through the years. So he’s a pro from a long time back.
“And then to replace Tris, Wally Reyes is a drummer in his own right. He just moved over [from percussion] and is playing drums.” A new percussionist, Ramon “Ray” Yslas, has filled Reyes’ former slot.
The new recruits join a lineup that includes original members Loughnane, singer/keyboardist Robert Lamm, and trombonist James Pankow, along with guitarist/singer Keith Howland, Ray Herrmann (saxophone), and Lou Pardini (keyboards, vocals). Original saxophonist Walt Parazaider remains a member of Chicago, but no longer tours with the group on a regular basis.
Lineup changes are nothing new for Chicago. The group has seen the departure of such notable members as Peter Cetera (bass/vocals), drummer Danny Seraphine, Bill Champlin (keyboards/vocals), and Jason Scheff (bass/vocals). Original guitarist/singer Terry Kath died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978.
In addition to touring, 2018 saw a performance of Chicago II that aired last spring on PBS and has been released on DVD. There is also a more substantial retrospective collection. Last April, Rhino Records released Chicago: VI Decades Live, which collects live performances from across the band’s career. The set is anchored by the original lineup’s August 1970 performance at England’s historic Isle Of Wight Festival and a 1977 performance on Germany’s Rockpalast program.
The Isle Of Wight was meant to be England’s answer to the previous summer’s Woodstock, and it featured a host of now-legendary acts. Loughnane, though, has only vague memories of Chicago’s part in that event.
“Pretty much all I remember is being there and playing the show. And I’m not sure I remember that much of it. I remember the fact that we were there, we played it, and I was probably critical of it at the time—usually, ‘That wasn’t good enough,’ or, ‘We should have done this better,’ or, ‘I missed those notes.’ That kind of stuff. That’s usually my take on almost every show I’ve ever done.”
It seems like a fitting statement for a musician who’s still striving to improve his craft after 52 years of touring and recording.
Chicago will perform May 15 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. Tickets are available at the DECC box office, by phone at 800-745-3000, or online at TicketMaster.com.