Joshua Helms, Gallery Films

Chicago –  The Band, the Myth, the Legends

“Decades Rock Live: Chicago & Friends is gonna be a lot of fun, because normally we are a band that does not have people sit in with us. For this show there’s gonna be seven guest artists, so it’s an unusual situation for us and we’re excited to be involved,” Chicago trumpeter Lee Lougnane told us.

Robert Lamm (vocals, keyboards) and Lee Loughnane (trumpet, vocals) are two of the three remaining founding members of the legendary rock band Chicago. (The third, James Pankow, is on trombone, and both he and Lamm are pertinent songwriters.) Interviewing them this month meant not only celebrating the 56 years of their career, but amplifying all that they have to offer as a legacy act who are (unsurprisingly) in their prime once again. Among the highlights that the current iteration of Chicago has seen this year, including new releases, greatest hits, and a forthcoming performance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, there is the icing on the cake coming up even sooner – Chicago & Friends. 

Chicago & Friends, a Decades Rock Live production, arrives on the cool shores of Atlantic City this weekend for not one, but two nights of electrifying music and enthusiastic special guests. Classic songs from the band’s Double Platinum debut album will be played to celebrate its 55th anniversary, as well as an acoustic set and a run of hits, all alongside B-sides, favorites and, as mentioned, friends. Lamm, Loughnane, and the other eight musicians are taking the stage at Ocean Casino Resort alongside artists who are not only fans of the band, but have been inspired by them, as well. Robin Thicke, Chris Daughtry, Judith Hill, Steve Vai, and more will be taking the stage and shaking up this filmed celebration. “There will be a great flow,” Lamm remarked about the forthcoming performances in our engaging conversation. “Getting a chance to play certain songs with our ensemble and with the guests added in? Well, it’s really kind of a once in a lifetime experience.”

Fans who attend either night – or both! – are in for a generation-spanning treat of distinct tunes and surprise numbers. Decades Rock Live is known for capturing the best of the best within the productions and their subjects, and this is their first new project in quite a few years, so the stakes are high, but Chicago can surely tackle it and then some. With 56 years under their belt and a discography that crosses genres, seasons, and eras, we’d quite certain that they can do anything. 

“We’re excited about what’s to come,” Lee Loughnane shared. “We have a TV special coming up. We have a new Christmas album out. We are gonna play with Earth, Wind & Fire next year starting in July, and do a bunch of dates before that. We’re quite busy and I’m happy about that.”

Loughnane last spoke to us in 2018, and while it may have only been five years since then, it almost feels like a lifetime ago. So much has happened, of course, and yet Chicago is back on top bringing music to the masses and making memories that will last just as long as their timeless melodies. “The pandemic tried to affect us in some negative ways, but it was not able to pull that off. We are still here! We’re doing more than we have before.”

Known affectionally as the rock band with horns, Chicago’s transformative debut album took the world by storm 55 years ago, and they “featured Terry [Kath] on long-winded guitar solos,” which Lougnane admitted is when “the horn section would go in the back station and have a smoke for a while.” As the rhythm section would carry on and Kath would tear a hole in the ceiling with his intricacy, the rest of the band would chill for a few minutes, get their wits about them, and head back out to bring the robust sounds of Chicago Transit Authority to the people once more. And that is once again the plan. “The intent is to really focus on the first album,” the trumpeter explained. “That is the whole first act, and then the second act is when we come out and do some of the hits. Robert Randolph is gonna play guitar. Robin Thicke is coming out to sing a couple of songs with us. Kingfish is coming out during the set, too. The third act is acoustic with Voiceplay. They’re gonna do like four songs with us. […] We’ll do the fourth act, which is sort of the climax of the night, and be back to some more hits and more guest artists. Judith Hill will be in the fourth act and she’ll probably be in the unplugged segment, as well. We’ll also bring back Robin Thicke and Kingfish and probably Robert Randolph at some point.”

Photo by Allison Morgan

Like Loughnane, Lamm made sure to shout out everyone involved, as well, explicitly giving them their flowers in advance for this legendary weekend and the achievement it is sure to be for all in attendance. “I commend the crew that put together this experience. It was kind of up to chance to put together musicians who don’t know each other and maybe not even each other’s music, so it was really a gamble. We are so excited, though. I truly commend the producers and the directors, and also the musicians, for taking a chance on this.”

If this all sounds like a difficult undertaking, even for a band as seasoned and consistently in-tune as this one, it is. Sharing the stage with new people, the existing band of talent, the extravagant stage set-up, and all with a discography that is history-making and record-breaking, is a whirlwind to think about even as a fan. Loughnane didn’t shy away from that truth, either. “I didn’t know exactly how to approach it at first. Like I said, we usually don’t have other people coming and sitting in with us, but it’s been exciting for me to bring everybody up to speed and get the arrangements the way we’re gonna need them done, because for TV an attention span is a little shorter, so you can’t do a 15 minute song or people will be on a different network!”

As he chuckles about the reality of filming a large-scale concert like such, we asked about any added pressures that cameras, lighting displays, and overarching eternal existence of these shows might put on him and his fellow band members. However, he’s a true professional, and we shouldn’t have been surprised by his honesty regarding just loving to make music at the end of every day.

“It’s pretty much just us doing what we know and love,” Loughnane said on the topic of the award-winning Decades Rock Live filming this weekend in Atlantic City. “Once we finish the shows, I will take the knowledge that a lot of people are gonna hear this over and over and over again, bring it back into the studio, and sweeten it. I’m gonna make it presentable for everyone.” A multi-faceted artist, the Chicago member is a producer with a precise ear, as well.

“You could get away with a lot of stuff when you’re at the initial performance, and with rock and roll – just by the sheer volume – you can get away with some mistakes that people don’t necessarily hear. When you listen to something over and over again, especially with headphones and the kind of equipment people have nowadays, you have to make it sound as good as you possibly can while still keeping the integrity of the live performance.”

Robert Lamm is cracking down just as hard, but not only on his friends and bandmates, but the ‘friends’ and guests arriving in AC for a few special moments. “If I were in their shoes, I would be doing homework up to the very last minute of the show. […] You can’t go in blind.” Although, improvisation thrives in energy-filled rooms like that of Ocean Casino Resort and entertainment is guaranteed in any and all of venues Chicago has taken on over the years.

“On the other hand musicians will be musicians and strange things may happen in a live situation… it’s a lot of fun and might make [a song] sound even better than the original!”

Lamm continued to explain how the direction of these two nights in particular are going to be a new kind of experience – not a bad one, of course, but one that is quite green and exudes unconventionality. “By and large, I personally have never met most of these really great artists,” he noted about the special guests. “Probably the only exception out of all of them is Robin Thicke, where we performed one of the Grammys shows maybe five or six years ago. The rest of the guests? Well, we are just looking forward to meeting them. We’re actually looking forward to rehearsing with them! I mean, they are sort of under more pressure than we are… at least in my case, because most of the songs are songs that I’ve written and obviously I participated in the original recordings!”

That couldn’t be more true. Robert Lamm has made grand contributions to Chicago, including writing some of their biggest hits, like the beautiful, Gold-certified “Saturday in the Park” and the ever-unique “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” – a track that features one of Lee Loughnane’s most notable trumpet solos.

The song that the singer is most excited to take to the stage, though, is “In the County,” a number written by Kath, their beloved original guitarist. “It was written probably prior to the very first album and none of us know what to make of it, because it’s so not a regular pop or rock song in terms of how it’s composed. I’ve been listening to it for a while now just to kind of get my teeth back into it. I keep feeling that Terry was in a very great state of mind when he wrote this song. He really came across in person as a biker guy – someone who loved dogs and girls – but he had a very soft side to him. Nobody really could get around that fact that he was also a tough guy and this really tough guitar player. The two things didn’t seem to make sense, but now that I’ve been listening to this record, going over this song forever (and especially since we planned on doing this performance), I’ve gotten to understand him. I’m really excited, too; I can’t wait to play that one.”

Immense musicianship is what makes this band what it is; without it, they may not be selling out concerts more than half a century later. Chicago enthralls decade after decade as both people and artists. “Most don’t have a 55-year career,” Loughnane explained with a laugh.”We’re one of the few!” Luckily for us, fans of all age and all across the world, he said, “We’re not going to stop anytime soon. […] As long as we can go, we’re gonna go. As long as people come and see us, we’re gonna come and see them.”

“I have always felt that the real gift that Chicago has is that regardless of what era and regardless of the personnel, we all love to play music,” Lamm noted. “I would say that we probably love playing music live rather than albums! Although albums are something that we sort of have to do and we do enjoy doing that, it’s the live performances that really drive the band.”

Fan are still “enjoying what they’re hearing,” Loughnane shared later in the conversation. Sonically, they’re at the top of their game, and personally, they’re just as tight on the stage and off. “Three of the original members of the band are with us – myself, Robert Lamm, and James Pankow. That’s half the band! When we started the first day in 1967, there were six guys in the band. In 2023, half the band is still with us, so that’s amazing in itself for me.”

It goes without saying that working alongside your friends is special, but to do so for what feels like a lifetime? There is a level of wonderfulness and astonishment to that in which few can explain.

For Chicago, especially the original three musicians still taking the stage alongside one another, there is a brotherhood now “more than ever before,” according to the trumpet player. “The band is happy being with us and they enjoy playing the music. They grew up with it as well, you know? We had to wait for some of these guys to be born to even be able to be the band!” Loughnane laughed about how some of the current Chicago musicians are “more than a couple” years longer than him, yet blending in seamlessly.

“Tony Obrohta is a great guitar player. Loren Gold is a great keyboard player and singer. Eric Baines is a great bass player – also a singer. And Neil Donnell? Unbelievable. We have got a great cast of characters besides us and Ray Hermann – who has been with us forever since Walter [Parazaider] had decided not he wasn’t gonna be able to play because of medical issues. Ray’s been a great addition to the band, and we have Wally Reyes Jr. and Ray Yslas, too, who play drums and percussion. Yeah, the band is just cooking on all cylinders.”

The best relationships, businesses, and even The Aquarian itself (the oldest alt-weekly) hasn’t lasted 56 years (and counting). World class music aside, Chicago as an entity is something to behold. There is an unparalleled orchestration to their rock and roll, and an impassioned rawness that can, will, and continues to draw everyone in.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been this many years,” Lamm declared. “It’s hard to understand how there could be so many fans of Chicago who’ve been with us for years, and also new fans who are just hearing Chicago for the first time. Just the fact that there are all these fans and all of these appreciations of Chicago’s music still going on is certainly is motivating for me. Again, I wrote many of these songs without knowing whatever or wherever it would take me, so the fact that so many of those songs have continued to bring new interest to Chicago after all these years is a gift. I am very, very grateful.”

To top it all off – this Decades Rock Live weekend in Atlantic City (55 years of Chicago Transit Authority!), a new Christmas album and boxset (on red and green vinyl), and a newly announced tour next year with Earth, Wind & Fire – Chicago is also returning to our television sets come Thanksgiving morning. As soon as we mentioned such to Loughnane, he was quick to exclaim, “Yes! We’ll be at the parade again! I’m gonna bring my warm Woolies along with me!”

It’s an extra special of a return for Robert Lamm, a multi-instrumentalist whose early, formative years were in the Big Apple. The sights, sounds, and streets of New York City shaped the star, and he was happy to share that with us fellow New Yorkers.

“Born and raised in New York, I first heard – and actually sang – music in Brooklyn Heights in a church choir,” he laughed. “My mother wanted to keep me off the tough streets of Brooklyn, so she made sure that I had something to do four or five days a week, which became singing and rehearsing with the choir. Later on, when I got older, I also got to learn different aspects of music with my younger friends, my new friends. Then, as luck would have it, several years later, my mother remarried a gentleman from Chicago and that brought me there. It really changed everything – the direction of my career and the direction of my life. I’m very grateful for that.”

With that in mind and the soundtrack of this band in our ears, we’d say that we are all grateful for Chicago… in every sense of the word.