LAST YEAR, 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 every year,” trumpet player Lee Loughnane noted in a recent phone interview. “The Stones haven’t even done that.”
The fact that Chicago has now not only endured, but thrived, for 51 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 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,” he said. “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 completes a run of headlining shows this spring and then this summer will headline an amphitheater tour with REO Speedwagon as the opener.
And this year’s live show is different than any Chicago has played, with the main set devoted to playing the group’s second album, “Chicago II,” in its entirety. 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,” Loughnane said.
“But we were wrong. Very simple, we were completely wrong. And this album is musically far reaching 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.’”
The group then follows up that set 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,” Loughnane said. “It’s mind-boggling. We can do two hours.”
The songs from Chicago II (which include the hits “25 Or 6 To 4,” “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World” and “Wake Up Sunshine”) have all been performed in concert by the band, although in the case of some lesser known songs on the album, only during the early years of the band.
The performance of Chicago II 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.
“Tris decided to resign, and also Jeff Coffey,” Loughnane said. “To replace them, the tenor vocals are now with a Canadian (singer/guitarist) 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, and he does high harmony background vocals as well. He’s a great bass player, and 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 and he just moved over (from percussion) and is playing drums. And we brought his brother (Daniel de los Reyes) in to play percussion. But Danny’s not going to be able to be with us continuously. He’s going to go back and forth with (his other group) the Zac Brown Band. I think he’s going to miss a good portion of the summer, actually. We will either have no percussionist or someone else to fill in for him.”
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.)
Lineup changes are nothing new for Chicago. Over the years, the group has seen the departures 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 gun shot in 1978.
Chicago has not only weathered the many personnel changes that have occurred over the years, Loughnane said the band has benefited from them.
“As members have come and gone for whatever the reasons might be, the new members that come in to take over their places, make the band even better,” he said. “I don’t know why that is, but that is what has been happening all the way through. So that’s not a bad thing, either.”
In addition to touring, 2018 will see a pair of releases from Chicago. Loughnane said the band has filmed a performance of Chicago II that airs this spring on PBS and then will be released on DVD.
There is also a more substantial retrospective collection. On April 6, 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 51 years of touring and recording.