At Symphony Hall in Chicago: I have a bone to pick with Chicago bassist/vocalist Jason Scheff. Scheff is an excellent player and fine singer, having been with the band for almost 30 years. Unfortunately, he almost caused the death of my best friend Joe.
I’m a longtime fan and former member of the band’s fan club, having seen them live 25 or 26 times. I attended a concert in Chicago about four years ago, sitting with other fan club members. Little did I know that when the band performed the song “Saturday In The Park,” the fan club members were to rush the stage. One, shall I say, “woman of a certain age” fan-club member pushed me out of the way and made a beeline for Scheff, almost crushing poor Joe in the process. Good times!
Fortunately, no such near disaster occurred on this night at Symphony Hall in Chicago as the namesake returned home to play with the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Kaufman, who has an extensive classical, film, and pop music pedigree. At first blush, it would seem like a weird pairing but Chicago has comfortably used string arrangements or full-blown orchestras in many of its big hits. The band was in fine form, though drummer Tris Imboden and bassist Scheff seemed to hold back to allow for a more even sonic balance with the orchestra, which had at least 25 members.
The opening number, a gritty version of the song “Introduction,” sung by a reinvigorated Robert Lamm, was an unimagined but highly successful pairing with the orchestra. The band continues to celebrate its admission to the Grammy Hall of Fame by performing the song “Question 67 and 68” (also from the celebrated first album, Chicago Transit Authority) with the full orchestra playing a sympathetic arrangement. “I’ve Been Searching So Long,” from Chicago VII, originally had a stellar orchestral arraignment and the CSO did it justice, with Scheff’s vocals matching the intensity. Scheff continued to astound with his piano version of “Will You Still Love Me” (from Chicago 18). The orchestra provided a vivid yet sensitive backdrop and percussionist Walfredo Reyes added a wonderful palette of additional colors.
The evening also included an acoustic reading of “Look Away” by Lou Pardini, and a trio and strings approach to “Wake Up Sunshine.” Perhaps the highlight of the night was the full-tilt version of “Ballet To A Girl From Buchanan.” The suite seemed to flourish with the full orchestra, percussion and band treatment as did the chart-topping hit from Chicago 17, “Hard Habit To Break.”
If there was a disappointment, it would be Pardini’s reading of “Call On Me.” Not only does the song test Pardini’s range, but the edited version dilutes the dynamics of the composition. Also the smash/sappy hit “If You Leave Me Now” only sounded sappier with the CSO. It would have been great to hear one of the new songs like “Crazy Happy” or “America” in its place, but most so-called long-term fans would have revolted, throwing their walkers into the aisles.
After hearing the Danny Seraphine/Hawk Wolinski-authored disco hit “Street Player,” the audience was blow away by “Just You and Me,” “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” (with its original orchestral arrangement in place), and then a hard-rocking orchestral version of “26 or 6 to 4.”
Two hours later, most of the senior citizens in the audience were exhausted but wanted more. As I was leaving I noticed a middle-aged women in a Chicago t-shirt running toward the Scheff side of the stage — and I recoiled in horror.
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