In 2017, the members of Chicago got together for a celebratory dinner to mark their 50th year as a band. That sort of longevity puts Chicago in a very exclusive club, as one of the very few bands— the Rolling Stones, The Who, and a handful of ‘60s pop acts playing perhaps with their frontman or key songwriter as the only remaining key band member – still on the scene. “We’re the ones that have worked very year,” trumpet player Lee Loughnane noted in a recent phone interview. “The Stones haven’t even done that.”
Continuing to thrive
The fact that Chicago has now not only endured but thrived, for 52 years and counting is not lost on Loughnane. “I have to pinch myself that this is actually me,” he said with a laugh.
But far from feeling like he has accomplished everything there is to attain within a band or there’s nothing left to prove, Loughnane said Chicago’s accomplishments only push him forward, to get better on his instrument and help Chicago as a band to improve as a live act.
“So many people have come up to me and said that I was responsible— not only the band but for me personally— for them playing their instrument or getting into music,” Loughnane explained. “That makes me want to work harder at it because there’s no going back from there. If they come and see you and you’re not good, that’s bad. 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.”
Loughnane and the other members of Chicago are getting their share of opportunities to prove themselves to audiences once again this year as the band returns to the road for an extensive headlining tour.
The group is coming off of a year-plus of shows unlike any the band had done before as the band performed its second album, “Chicago II,” in its entirety, followed by a second set of hits from across the band’s career. It marked the first time Chicago has played one of its albums front to back on a tour, but it took a while for the group to buy into the idea.
“It has been something other artists have done and we (had) 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,” Loughnane said. “But we were wrong. Very simple, we were completely wrong. And this album is musically enough and ahead of its time, to the point where when we started learning it (again), even the songwriters were scratching their heads going ‘Where the hell did I come up with this? I mean, it’s really good.’”
Now Chicago is changing up the live show, opting for two sets of songs from across the band’s career, which figures to make for a lengthy, crowd-pleasing show. The setlist won’t be the only thing that’s new for fans seeing Chicago this year. They’ll also see a lineup that has undergone several changes.
Drummer Tris Imboden and bassist/singer Jeff Coffey have recently departed. But Loughnane feels the group found more-than-capable replacements. Guitarist Neil Donell now handles tenor vocals, veteran musician Brett Simons has taken over on bass. Walfredo Reyes has moved over from his former percussionist role to play 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 on a regular basis with the group.)
In addition to touring, 2018 saw a pair of releases from Chicago. 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 a 4-CD/1 DVD set, “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 DVD capturing Chicago’s 1977 performance on Germany’s “Rockpalast” program.
The Isle Of Wight Festival was meant to be England’s answer to the previous summer’s Woodstock Festival and featured a host of now-legendary acts. Loughnane, though, has only general 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,” Loughnane said. “I remember the fact that we were there, we played it, and I was probably critical of it at the time. Usually (I was like) ‘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.”
That seems like a fitting statement for a musician who’s still striving to improve on his craft after 52 years of touring and recording.
See Chicago play at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater at 7:30pm on Friday, May 24.
Ticket prices start at $85.