California Transit Authority – Sacred Ground (2013)

It’s not just that Chicago doesn’t sound like old Chicago anymore. In fact, nobody does. Or, more correctly, nobody did. What’s left of the original band, having now issued just one original album since 1991, has been supplanted.

California Transit Authority, founded by the departed drummer Danny Seraphine, has returned with its long-awaited second full length and, this time, they’ve brought along some brawny brass charts — not just recalling but viscerally reanimating the classic horn-powered feel of Chicago Transit Authority, which after one album simply became Chicago. Heck, Seraphine even has the R&B-soaked Bill Champlin (vocalist on Chicago 16-through-XXX) here for one track, a close-your-eyes-and-you’ll-never-guess-it’s-not-you-know-who moment called “Full Circle.”

That was, of course, the title of CTA’s initial album, but seems far more fitting as a theme here.

After all, CTA has, over the two-and-a-half years it took to get this follow up out, developed an air-tight cohesion that recalls nothing so much as the original CTA: Bonilla (who also works as a key cog in the Keith Emerson band) wrote or co-wrote eight of this album’s 14 tracks, and also handled the all-important horn arrangements on nine cuts, while Seraphine helped compose five others. They’ve become two halves of the one soul-lifting whole.

But, like Chicago before it, there is actually a chorus of voices involved with Sacred Ground. That collaborative spirit keeps Sacred Ground from sounding rote or overly nostalgic.

Keyboardist Peter Fish, for instance, also arranged the horns on three songs and co-wrote two others. Elsewhere, Champlin’s son Will takes center stage for the funky-cool title track as well as “Strike,” a mid-century swinger he co-wrote. Keyboardist Ed Roth penned this quietly impactful solo tribute to Ronnie Montrose (a mentor to so many young musicians — including Bonilla — before his tragic passing last year), while co-writing four other tracks on Sacred Ground. Bonilla sings “Out of Reason,” and then he joins with Will Champlin for a duet on “Staring at the Sun.”

The wild card, though, is the boiling soul belter Larry Braggs of Tower of Power, who grabs the mic for “The Real World,” as well as a couple of covers in “I Love You More than You’ll Ever Know” (a standout blues given this scalding new reading, after originally appearing on Child Is Father to the Man, the Al Kooper-era 1968 release by Blood, Sweat and Tears) as well as “Take Me Back to Chicago,” an ageless 1977 Seraphine track from Chicago XI. His take is heart-filling, and utterly fresh.

In this way, the inclusion of the latter here not only connects the dots back to Seraphine’s time in that legendary band, but also shows yet again how their classic sound can be updated for a new generation. Thankfully, we have Seraphine and California Transit Authority these days to do both.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.