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Sunday, August 02, 2015

Horns Aplenty

Photo credit: Jon Gitchoff

In the 1970s, I became a fan of four bands that had one thing in common -- fantastic horn sections. There was Tower Of Power. There was Blood, Sweat, and Tears, whose best work ended when it parted ways with singer David Clayton Thomas. The other two were Chicago and Earth, Wind, and Fire, who performed on a double bill Friday night in St. Louis.

Chicago was the first band I ever saw in a concert where I paid my own money and went without my parents. At the time, I knew every Chicago song. I'd been a fan of theirs from the beginning, when they became the first rock band in history to debut with a double album -- and then follow that with another double album. In the summer of 1975, they were touring to support "Chicago VII," so I saved my money and went to Madison Square Garden to see them.

The Beach Boys opened the show with a 75-minute set, then Chicago did 90 minutes, then the Beach Boys (who sang backup on the then-current Chicago hit "Wishing You Were Here") joined them for a final hour together. Even though my seat was behind the stage and up in the third level, I remember it vividly because it was my first big-time rock show, and it was great -- particularly the horn section of trombonist James Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, and sax/flute player Walt Parazadier. Unlike other bands, which put guitarists and singers in the spotlight, Chicago showcased the horn players front and center.

For that concert, I went with two girls from my high school whose names I can not recall. For Friday night's concert, I went with two girls from my house whose names I'll never forget -- they're my wife and daughter.

Parazadier isn't on the 2015 tour, but Pankow and Loughnane were there Friday night, along with fellow founding member Robert Lamm on keyboards. For three guys in their late sixties and early seventies, they looked and sounded great, along with another half-dozen musicians filling out the band on guitar, bass, percussion, and vocals.

Chicago opened its portion of the show the same way it opened its first album, with "Introduction," followed by "Questions 67 and 68." Before long, they rolled into the "Ballet For A Girl In Buchanan" medley from side two of their second album (from the days when there was such a thing as "side two") that starts with "Make Me Smile" and includes "Color My World." The latter was such a hit in the 1970s that it was played at every school dance, bar/bat mitzvah, and wedding. When they played it in concert, now as then, it created five separate applause breaks -- when Lamm plays the opening piano notes and the crowd recognizes the song, when Loughnane sings the lyrics, one each when the flute solo begins and ends, and again when the tune is finished.

I lost interest in Chicago when they moved from their innovative rock-jazz hybrid era into years of adult-contemporary-radio-friendly hits like "You're My Inspiration" and "Hard Habit To Break." I think all that sappy stuff is what's kept them from being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. When they played those tunes last night, the energy level in the crowd matched mine -- impatient for more upbeat classics. At one point, a guy behind us yelled, "Go back to the second album!!" Fortunately, it wasn't long before they reached back to the first album again for their extended version of "I'm A Man" (originally a hit for the Spencer Davis Group with Steve Winwood on vocals and Hammond B3 organ).

The Earth, Wind, and Fire lineup also included three founding members, all in their mid-sixties and still utterly entertaining. Maurice's brother Verdine White laid down the funk with a pounding bass line while dancing around in his trademark baggy pants. Ralph Johnson played percussion and sang. But the star of the group remains Philip Bailey, the singer with the remarkable range -- which he showcased spectacularly during "Reasons," hitting high notes that would amaze Mariah Carey. EWF played hits like "That's The Way Of The World" and "Boogie Wonderland," and its dozen members (including its own tight three-man horn section) seemed in constant motion, with an impressive stage & lights show.

The concert began and ended with both bands onstage, creating an impressive 21-man wall of sound as they alternated between Chicago and EWF hits. Like the rest of the near-sold-out crowd at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre (that's a Latin word meaning, "Six bucks for a bottle of water???"), we stood up, sang along, and enjoyed ourselves immensely.