California Transit Authority – Full Circle (2007)

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Full Circle isn’t not so much about a CD than it is a story of a certain musician’s redemptive long journey back from personal tragedies. And his new band is a musical group led by a man who sought to provide a willing public the soulful, energetic free wheeling style of seventies rock that’s missing so much on the music scene today; the kind of music this man was smack dab in the middle of during those salad days of adventurous rock.

Forty years ago this past February, the band briefly named the Chicago Transit Authority but shortly afterwards became known as simply Chicago was formed with Danny Seraphine as its drummer. Twenty-three years later, Seraphine was sacked by the band. Seveteen years later, Seraphine is back.

As a long time, founding member of Chicago, Seraphine wasn’t a major songwriter, wasn’t a lead vocalist, and he wasn’t in that vaunted horn section. In other words, he rarely got the spotlight that the rest of the band enjoyed. But drumming enthusiasts and close followers of the original band are well aware his phenomenal, even pioneering skills.

Many of Chicago’s early songs, including some of their hits, featured loads of odd and shifting time signatures that would have frustrated most rock drummers. Seraphine made it all look easy.

But as the hard-rockin’ adventurous crew morphed into safe-as-milk slick balladry by the eighties, Seraphine’s role became less and less challenging. It’s hard to say for sure if Danny lost his chops or just lost interest, but by 1990 the rest of the band evidently thought he didn’t fit anymore.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Legendary jazz-rock drummer Danny Seraphine talks about the beginnings of Chicago, and the end, then how he finally emerged with a new band, California Transit Authority.]

For roughly the next fifteen years, Seraphine first endured legal battles with his old band and a divorce before settling into a quiet life in Colorado. The royalty checks from all those years in Chicago allowed for a comfortable existence skiing and flyfishing. But he was eventually persuaded by a friend keyboardist Peter Fish to return to music again. Woodshedding on his own and through a few lessons by big band star Joe Porcaro (Jeff’s dad), Danny regained his prowess and started playing in jam sessions and benefits concerts.

Gradually, he picked up other players until he was encouraged by audience feedback and friends to form a band full time and formally re-enter the music profession.

The name he chose for this band was CTA, as in California Transit Authority.

The other band members Seraphine picked up along the way include Marc Bonilla (guitar), Mick Mahan (bass), Larry Braggs (lead vocals), Edward Harris Roth (keyboards), and Fish.

Braggs has been the lead vocalist for Tower Of Power since the turn of the millennium, and brings a powerful, three-octave range and hard-hitting soulfulness CTA’s repertoire demands. Bonilla is a guitarist’s guitarist who has worked extensively scoring for movies and TV shows, and toured with as well as produced for prog rock legend Keith Emerson.

Like the late Chicago guitarist Terry Kath, the man whose parts he is often playing, Bonilla knows his way around blues, jazz, soul and of course, rock. He’s no Kath clone (nobody is) but he shows a lot of Jeff Beck and Robin Trower in his palette. With apologies to Donnie Dacus and Dewayne Bailey, Bonilla is as good or better than any Chicago guitarist who’s followed Kath. The other musicians came with their own long resumes, too, including six Emmy awards for keyboardist Fish.

It wasn’t long after this crack crew was formed that they went into a studio and cut an album. Those sessions has resulted in Full Circle, released today.

As a debut album, Full Circle announces to the world what CTA is about, that is, Seraphine’s post-sabbatical musical vision. It’s clear from the presence of nine Chicago-related covers out of thirteen tracks that Seraphine is looking back at his tenure with Chicago with justifiable pride. He is clearly setting out to recapture the spirit of that original lineup. But with some reworking of the arrangements, the different styles of the other musicians and the appearance of four non-Chicago songs that Danny doesn’t intend for CTA to be strictly a nostalgia band.

Seraphine carefully chose Chicago covers that emphasize performance and raw energy over ballads and slickness. Some are familiar, others are less so unless you’re a Chicago fan. There is nothing here from the post-Kath era (after 1977). And five of the nine Chicago covers come from their first two albums.

Terry Kath’s “Introduction,” which served as the first track from Chicago’s first album, serves as the first non-instrumental track on CTA’s (second overall). Larry Braggs provides a passionate vocal delivery that is even more fervent than Kath’s. Braggs brings it again for the hard-driving blues-rock of “South California Purples.”

A couple of movements from Chicago II’s “Ballad For A Girl In Buchannon” are tackled in the same sequence, the second of which became the radio hit “Colour My World”. “Colour’s” flute part here is replaced by Bonilla’s tastefully tranquil guitar work.

Robert Lamm’s lyric-less jaunty “Happy Cause I’m Going Home” from Chicago III is a favorite Chicago tune of mine and the wordless vocals are replaced in parts by Bonilla’s Santana-like tone. Not quite as good as the original, but still sweet sounding all the same. Kath’s organic funk workout “Mississippi Delta City Blues” is another great selection and given a straightforward rendering and sure to get audiences into the groove and wondering why “Baby What A Big Surprise” was the hit from that album in 1977 instead of this one.

“I’m A Man” is a remaining relic of the early, pre-recording days of Chicago when they were trying to establish themselves with covers of r&b numbers like this Spencer Davis Group classic. Bonilla’s old boss Emerson shows up to play organ and a top drawer percussion section consisting of Seraphine, Sheila E. and former Weather Report member Alex Acuna give this track the ‘oomph’ of Chicago’s old rendition.

It’s not all old Chicago songs, though. Bonilla’s own “Antonio’s Love Jungle” is given a re-working here, enhanced by Seraphine’s syncopations. “Something Different” is a contemporary rendition of an old Cannonball Adderley song written by a then-unkown Chuck Mangione. Gregg Allman’s “Dreams” as done by CTA is close to Buddy Miles’ definitive 1970 version and Braggs belts it out like as if it was his tune all along.

“Several Thousand,” the album’s only all-new composition, features guest lead singer Wes Quave and is a catchy, pop-oriented song that would be a logical choice for a single. I don’t know anything about Quave, but his sleek tenor makes for a fine fit with the song and while this track is a bit smoother from the rest of the album, it’s still just as soulful and played without pretensions.

The CD isn’t without a few faults. “Make Me Smile” is made into an instrumental, and instead of seeing what Braggs could do with the soulful vocals, we get Bonilla’s guitar providing the lead voice. That wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself except that he’s merely playing the vocal lines on guitar instead being provided a chance to create. This is one song better played on the household karaoke machine than the car stereo.

The only other weak spot of note is the final track, a rip-roaring rendition of “25 or 6 to 4.” This is the only time the synth-recreation of the horn section sounds more obvious than the other times. That said, Braggs, Bonilla and Seraphine all put in fine performances.

This is a CD bound to please anyone who is longing for the time when rock bands played with both passion and musicianship, not just live but in the studio. The record, in fact, feels more like it’s meant as an advertisement to their live act more than it is intended to sell records just for the sake of selling records. The production is straightforward, clean and stays out of the way of the band. Most of the sessions could have very well been recorded live in the studio. A sharp contrast to the Chicago albums recorded in the last 25 or so years.

Examining Danny Seraphine’s tale of being a top drummer in a one of America’s most commercially successful bands before being kicked out and later forming a great band on his own reminds me a bit of Steve Smith’s experience in Journey. But Seraphine’s story is more remarkable in that he fought personal demons and hung up his sticks for many years before working his way back. When you hear this band play, you understand that his story has reached a positive ending and he’s spreading that happiness to listeners everywhere through his music.

Welcome back, Danny.

Click HERE to order the physical CD online.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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