No doubt there is a distinctive Chicago sound.
Whether it’s “If You Leave Me Now” or “You’re the Inspiration,” “Beginnings” or “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” it doesn’t even matter the vocalist.
It’s the immediately identifiable co-mingling of snappy brass, winding grooves that sound like sunshine and a dollop of jazz pasted over pop/rock melodies that scream Chicago.
For more than 50 years, the band once known as Chicago Transit Authority (as when they played the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969) has toured relentlessly — bringing a vibrant production to the stage — and still squeezed in compilations speckled with new material, full albums of new material (such as 2014’s “Chicago XXXVI: Now”) and Christmas albums of new material. Their latest, “Chicago Christmas,” arrives Friday. .
On Saturday, the band, which co-founder, trombonist and horn arranger James Pankow calls “the ultimate lineup,” will pull into Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park (“I just look down and say, ‘Hey buddy, can I have some of that foie gras?’ Pankow joked about Chastain’s notoriously dining-involved audience).
Along with the original trio of Pankow, fellow horn player Lee Loughnane and singer/keyboardist Robert Lamm, the Chicago crew that will sprawl across the stage includes guitarist Keith Howland, keyboardist Lou Pardini, drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr., saxophonist Ray Herrmann, singer/guitarist Neil Donell, bassist Brett Simons and percussionist Ramon “Ray” Yslas.
One of the hardest-working bands in showbiz, Chicago still performs more than 100 concerts a year and, said Pankow, has “worked every year for 52 years.”
Calling from his home in Nashville in early summer to discuss the anniversary of the Atlanta Pop Festival, a proud, grateful and chatty Pankow discussed the legacy of Chicago.
Q: It’s almost unbelievable to think about Chicago’s career and the fact that it took until 2016 for the band to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What did that mean to you, finally?
A: That (induction) was by virtue of 37 million people casting their (fan) votes for this band. It got to a point when the Rock Hall was absolutely bound to induct us because the pressure was so great. The real votes that count are from former inductees and administrative people going up to (former Rolling Stone editor and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Chairman) Jann Wenner. If Jann says OK, then you’re inducted. It’s politics.
Q: But it seems as if Chicago never really had a resurgence because you’re always just rolling along.
A: After the induction, we filmed that documentary about the 50 years of this band (“Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago,” which debuted on CNN in 2017). It killed in the ratings — it was global and hugely well received. That same year, (Chicago singer/keyboardist) Robert Lamm and I got inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. All of those things injected the band with a whole new aura and created even more buzz. Every show sold out, and we see it still today. People can’t get enough of this. Little did we know, you’re sitting at the piano having a personal moment writing a song and next thing you know, it’s a mantra for millions.
Q: You guys are always terrific live, but your tour with Earth, Wind & Fire (in 2015) was such an amazing night of music.
A: We were one of the pioneers in (tour) packaging. Live Nation loved the idea because it brought more people to the dance. We were also the first act to do a finale with both acts on stage; that was a real thrill for the audience. Between Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago, there were 20 of us on stage, no smoke and mirrors, all live, playing each other’s greatest hits. We’ve been out with the Doobie Brothers and REO Speedwagon and packaged with Huey Lewis and America. The list goes on. But the Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago thing was the ultimate for me.
Q: But now for this tour…
A: This year, we’re out by ourselves. It’s an evening with Chicago, and people are gonna get more than two hours of our greatest hits. We’ve had 40 hit singles, so it’s hit after hit after hit. Somewhere, someplace there’s a Chicago song on the radio right now. When we rock ‘n’ roll, I would put us up against anybody. We kick ass and it’s LIVE. It is the record, note for note in an incredible sound system, and people are freaking out. It’s so exciting. I thought by now I’d be on the rocking chair on the porch, but I’m on the road because we’re in demand. What am I going to retire to? I love this!
8 p.m. Oct. 12. $30.50-$90.50. Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park, 4469 Stella Drive NW, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com.
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