Album review: Chicago — Live in ’75

Chicago Live in '75 (Rhino Handmade)To read the Ben Edmonds-penned essay that accompanies Rhino Handmade’s 2011 Chicago offering — Live in ’75 — you’d get the impression that the two handsomely packaged discs contained therein contained a glimpse of the band at its apex. This is true to an extent, as Chicago was on a hot streak when they rolled into Maryland to play a series of shows in Largo’s old Capital Centre. That tour — which saw the group join forces with the Beach Boys — marked the band’s graduation to the Big Time, aka stadium and arena concerts.

But artistically, the band was straying further and further from their jazz/rock roots and was on the precipice of Cetera Ballad Country. So in a sense, Live in ’75 does offer diehard fans a service in that it presents Chicago as they were right before the bad times — before producer James William Guercio found himself on the outs, before Cetera started to dominate the proceedings with his panty-moistening ballads, but most of all before Terry Kath shuffled off this mortal coil far too early in a moment of heart-wrenching wrecklessness.

So anyway, how ’bout that music? Well by and large Live in ’75 delivers. The band flexes its considerable muscles on numerous occassions over the course of a few hours, most effectively on “Mongonucleosis,” “Introduction,” and the multi-part “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” suite, the latter of which is the album’s crown jewel. The biggest stars Danny Seraphine and his monster drums, as well as that inimitable backing section of Lee Loughnane (trumpet), James Pankow (trombone), and Walter Parazaider (woodwinds). They lead the way for Chicago as the group tears through classics like “Beginnings,” “Old Days,” and “I’m a Man.”

But it’s not all good news, friends. For one, Terry Kath’s guitar is virtually nonexistent in the mix and, for another, Peter Cetera’s voice is too high in the mix. And by that I mean someone should’ve turned his mic off, because his lead vocals by and large are embarrassing. I’m not enough of a Chicago nut to know what a typical performance from this era sounded like, so I’ll give Peter the benefit of the doubt and assume he was sick, drugged, or both. In either case, his singing sounds totally mailed in, as if he was just killing time before the Karate Kid franchise got started.

The Cetera/Chicago feud doesn’t get the ink that the Steve Perry/Journey split does, but something is clearly going on here. I have a difficult time believing that the band couldn’t find tape from another show of the period to offer the public that didn’t make ol’ Peter sound so awful. I can only chalk the decision to use these shows up to more sinister motives.

But not even that is enough to dampen the overall effect of Live in ’75, which is to be reminded that as much as they are an oldies band now, Chicago was once mighty relevant and powerful. The package Rhino assembled is exquisite (a think booklet full of vintage photos and a giant poster that my teenage self totally would’ve hung on the wall are ensconced in a sturdy slipcase), but ultimately it’s the music that matters. And this music matters, boys and girls.

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