Chicago – Chicago II: Live on Soundstage – A Classic Album Played in Concert

Chicago – Chicago II: Live on Soundstage (DVD/CD) (Rhino)

An under appreciated album gets performed live

Despite being mostly known now for their classic hit singles, Chicago were originally an album-oriented rock band.  In fact, the band’s first three records were all double LP sets, full of challenging music that stretched the boundaries between pop, rock and jazz.  The band recently revisited their second album, originally billed simply as Chicago but now known as Chicago II, for an episode of the PBS show Soundstage, playing the album in its entirety (well sort of – see below).  Rhino has just issued a DVD/CD set of the performance as Chicago II: Live on Soundstage.

Almost 50 years has passed since this album was released, and a lot has changed: Terry Kath, the fiery heart of the band, passed away 40 years ago, while bassist and ballader Peter Cetera left in 1985, and monster drummer Danny Seraphine exited five years later.  Walter Parazaider, the band’s sax and flute man, is still an official member, but has given up touring.  This leaves original vocalist/keyboardist Robert Lamm, along with horn players James Pankow and Lee Loughnane, as the group’s only original members.

The band’s performance of this classic, but under-appreciated album, is a reminder that Chicago was once willing to take chances.  “Poem For the People” is full of jazzy time changes, while the sweeping “Ballet For a Girl in Buchannon” is breathtaking and manages to incorporate two of the band’s biggest hits, “Make Me Smile,” and “Colour My World,” into the extended suite.

There’s still plenty of feel-good music, like the bouncy “Wake Up Sunshine,” and a spirited reading of their signature song,“25 or 6 to 4.”

People may have forgotten, but Chicago began as a politically-charged outfit.  The original Chicago II album sleeve features lyrics from the prayer for peace and harmony, “Better End Soon.” It’s amazing that the problems discussed in this song from five decades ago are still with us today.

The set is billed as Chicago playing the album, “from start to finish,” which isn’t exactly true.  For one, several pieces of the original album are absent, including a long instrumental section on the original side three (“Prelude,” and “A.M. Mourning” and “P.M. Morning”) and the third part of aforementioned “Better End Soon” suite.  The biggest change is that “25 or 6 to 4,” originally from side three, was smartly saved for the band’s closing song.  Here, guitarist Keith Howland manages to catch fire in his solo, and does channel some very Terry Kath-sounding wah wah guitar.

The band does take some liberties with Kath’s original “Memories of Love,” stripping the song of its flute and strings and just adding acoustic guitar and vocals – it’s a nice touch and is done with respect.

This set comes with both the DVD and CD of the entire performance.  I give the nod to watching the DVD: the excellent, multi-camera shoot and clever editing, help raise the excitement level, making this an enjoyable viewing experience.  If you take away the video, the band’s playing is serviceable, but nowhere close to the incendiary energy that was captured on the original, 1970, LP.

At the very least, Chicago II: Live on Soundstage is a fun document for anyone seeing the band in concert this summer.  But, this album can also be starting point in rediscovering the band’s rich, back catalog.  —Tony Peters