Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chicago et (non) Cetera

Two years after Hippiefest 2009, I, Nicky, and Nicky's uncle Jeff (this time, accompanied by Nicky's cousin Stephanie) finally followed up with another visit to Baltimore's Pier 6 for another nostalgia-flavored concert. Actually, Nicky and I did have one false start earlier in the Summer when we tried to attend a gig featuring Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. That was during the period of extremely hot weather, however -- if you live on the East Coast, then you probably remember which one -- and we couldn't stay past the end of McDonald's set. I can't say I enjoyed that experience. Seeing Chicago, however, more than made up for it. It was decaffeinated Chicago, to be sure, since lead vocalist Peter Cetera hasn't been with the band for some time, but everyone else was there, with considerably less hair and apparently mellower politics (they even displayed an American flag during the encore!) but still giving forth that distinctive and enjoyable horn-flavored sound.

Speaking of horns, that's where I have a connection to Chicago, of sorts. Supposedly, while the band was developing at DePaul University, they sought brass instruction from a young priest, Fr. George Wiskirchen. Fr. Wiskirchen later served as assistant band director at Notre Dame for three decades. When I attended ND, Fr. Wiskirchen directed me in the concert brand and brass ensemble.

The band opened with "Make Me Smile" and pretty much played straight through for two hours or so, with occasional breaks for solo performances and the like. Breaking the official Pier 6 policy on videography, they invited the audience to take all the pictures and videos it wanted, since "it all winds up on Youtube in the end anyway." Matters were sufficiently relaxed that, as part of an ongoing benefit for Susan G. Komen for the cure, some schmo who had won an auction on the Chicago web site got to perform a dangerously realistic version of karaoke by signing the Cetera part in "If You Leave Me Now." He didn't do half badly, though his voice was about a half-octave lower than it needed to be, almost as if he were trying to "Elvis" the thing up.

Guest vocalists aside, there was far less "cheese" visible here than during Hippiefest, where several of the participants self-consciously treated their performances as something of a joke. The only tacky moment came when the band did "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" to promote their upcoming Christmas album. That wouldn't have been so bad, except that a lighted Christmas tree was carted on stage and the boys goofed around with it a bit, including a run-around-the-pine-perimeter routine ("Rockin' Around," get it?) that got positively Little Black Sambo-esque before the end. The song sounded good, at least, so I don't think we're looking at a Yuletide disaster of Dylan-esque proportions here. What made this so irritating in retrospect was that the band later only performed part of my favorite Chicago song, "Feelin' Stronger Every Day" -- the fast part -- to end the performance. What's the point of doing the fast part without the slow part? It's like turning on the car and instantly accelerating to 55 mph. I would gladly have traded a couple of those scampers around the tree for a full version.

Are we ever going to see bands like Chicago again? I seriously doubt it. Music is simply another mass-produced item now; Nicky and I are constantly joking about how every young male or female singer sounds the same. As for rap and hip-hop, no comment. This "sunset glimpse," however, was great.

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