50 years on tour: Chicago’s James Pankow reveals how the band stays relevant

. May 15, 2017.
Photo Credit: David M. Earnisse.
Photo Credit: David M. Earnisse.

In February this year, the members of Chicago had a celebratory dinner to mark their 50th anniversary as an active touring band. Heading to Toledo on Friday, May 19, trombonist James Pankow, one of the three remaining original band members who still tours and records, has clearly taken time to absorb how rare that kind of longevity and success is.

“We wined and dined and made the toast to 50 years,” Pankow relayed during a phone interview. “You know, where did it go? 50 years. I went from high school to Medicare, and I’m still trying to figure this out.”

Chicago has not only endured for 50 years, the group has mostly thrived, remaining a highly successful touring act. Between headlining shows and a summer tour with the Doobie Brothers, the band is having one of its busiest years on the road.

But Pankow also realizes that at this stage, there’s no telling how much longer he— or Chicago as a band, for that matter— will get to continue this remarkable run. And he hasn’t had to look far for a reminder that the end of the road could come at any point.

Every night on stage, he can look at his fellow horn players and notice that he and fellow original member Lee Loughnane (trumpet) are now joined by Ray Herrmann on saxophone and flute. After years of subbing for original member Walt Parazaider as needed on tours, Herrmann is now a full-time, full-fledged member of Chicago.

“Walt’s got heart issues,” Pankow said. “He’s got arteries he’s inherited from his mother’s side of the family, I guess, and it got to a point where the intensity of these shows became a health risk, just pumping the air through those horns for two and a half or three hours. It just became a dangerous thing for him because of his condition.”

Pankow savors the fact that he can still perform with Chicago.

“I’m grateful for it. I just pinch myself,” he said. “So we’re going to enjoy every minute of this because it ain’t going to last that much longer. Who knows?”

In addition to this special anniversary, there have been other reasons for Chicago to celebrate recently:

On New Year’s Day this year, an award-winning documentary on the group, “Now More Than Ever: The History Of Chicago,” aired on CNN. Pankow feels the film has raised the band’s visibility and given their career a significant shot in the arm.

Last year, the original lineup was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on their first nomination— even though the band had been eligible for the Hall since 1994.

Over the years, as Chicago continued to get passed over, Pankow made no secret about what he saw as shortcomings for the Hall and the politics behind determining which acts get nominated and voted in.

Pankow credits support from millions of Chicago fans with spurring Hall voters to finally give the band the nod, and he now admits that getting into the Hall last year was indeed special.

“All of the hot air aside, yeah there are inconsistencies, no doubt,” Pankow said. “There are qualified veteran acts that have yet to be inducted and are long overdue, just like we were. And then there are lesser acts that have been in for quite some time that don’t have nearly the legacy or the body of work. So there are inconsistencies that exist, but once it happened, I mean, I have to tell you, it was a thrill.”

Now on June 15, Pankow and Chicago singer/keyboardist Robert Lamm (the other founding member still with the band) will get another prestigious honor when they are inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“It’s an award, not for Chicago, but for us as songwriters,” said Pankow, who wrote or co-wrote tunes such as “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “25 or 6 to 4” and the suite “Ballad for a Girl From Buchannon,” (which included the hits “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World). “It’s really special to me because I am humbled by the company I will now be in; I mean, some of the greatest songwriters in history. And it will validate a life’s work. Between Robert and myself, we’ve written a dozen of the band’s hits. The two of us actually created the hits that put the band on the map in the first place.”

But before that ceremony, there will be shows to play. Along with, Pankow, Lamm, Loughnane and Hermann, today’s band includes Keith Howland (guitar, vocals), Lou Pardini (keyboards, vocals), Tris Imboden (drums) Walfredo Reyes Jr. (percussion) and the newest band member, Jeff Coffey (bass, vocals).

Fans who see Chicago at its May 19 show at Stranahan Theater will see a two-set, two-and-a-half-hour show that’s all live, with no help from pre-recorded backing tracks.

“There are no smoke and mirrors. This is veteran musicians who play these songs very well,” Pankow said. “Right now the band is popping on all cylinders. The band has never sounded better, and people are going to hear a great show.”

8pm. Friday, May 19. $59.50-$350. Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd., 419-381-8851. stranahantheater.org