‘Chicago: VI Decades Live: This Is What We Do’ Makes Case For Band’s Early Greatness (BOX SET REVIEW)

Since Chicago’s 2016 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there’s been a flurry of activity around the group. This five-disc set and the subsequent multi-format release of a 2018 concert performance on PBS’s Soundstage follows Chicago: The Terry Kath Experience, a documentary produced and directed by the late guitarist’s daughter Michelle Sinclair, itself subsequent to the (CNN-affiliated) broadcast and home video release of Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago. Neither of the latter titles comprehensively covers the whole story of this veteran group—the former deliberately and artfully takes a different and more personal angle—and it’s arguable VI Decades Live: This Is What We Do gives somewhat short shrift to varied and numerous personnel who’ve populated the band’s lineup for over half a decade. Still there’s no denying how forcefully this package, in somewhat backhanded fashion, makes the case Chicago was never more skilled or intense than in its first decade of existence, largely due to the presence of its fallen comrade; co-founder of the group and, until his untimely accidental death in January 1978, guitarist, composer and one of its chief lead vocalists, Terry Kath brought an earthy urgency to Chicago’s music that the band never rediscovered in the wake of his passing.

CDs 1&2: More than half of This Is What We Do borrows from Chicago’s first ten years and the first excerpt, the entire set of August 1970 at the Isle of Wight Festival in England, captures the band on the threshold of the fairly astounding commercial success it earned during that decade. The accelerated pace of the playing might at first seem like nerves if the band didn’t navigate the intricacy of the arrangements with such confident fluidity: even at this fairly early juncture—the band formed just three years prior–the band brings well-honed authority to a clutch of selections from its debut album as well as the recently- released Chicago II, It’s a tone set in no uncertain terms by the late guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Terry Kath and one that informs the musicianship of his bandmates as well: a spontaneity and intensity permeates this whole performance, even including the pop-structured likes of “Color My World,” that would dissipate in later years.

CD 3: Reaffirming the fact the content of Chicago Live isn’t exactly sequenced for the greatest possible value, the approximately ninety-minutes playing time that comprises the full concert at the famed British festival is split over two compact discs, with no additional content, concert or otherwise, added on to fill the full playing time of the second CD. But that debatable shortfall isn’t so much of an issue as a paucity of detail in annotation of the compilation overseen by Jeff Magid: aside from the prominent actions shots of Kath (one inexplicably ‘flipped’), the somewhat random scrapbook-design of the twenty-four page booklet precludes captions for the photos that would illuminate the timeline of the band (as would some further documentation of the group’s personnel evolution, particularly in later years). Ironically enough, this oversight is an accurate reflection of Chicago’s music as it has metamorphosed over years: less-than-novel cover choices (“In the Midnight Hour”), a ‘big band’ concept for a tour plus appearances in Las Vegas were exactly those careerist moves that caused Terry Kath to contemplate departure from the band at the time he died in 1978.

CD 4: The improvisational sense in Chicago’s playing left with Kath as did the decided rock element that kept the band’s horns propulsive, at the forefront of their sound right along with his guitar. Those elements serve to balance the increasing pop-orientation of Chicago’s material over time, a stylistic move that eventually superseded the topical bent of the group: the sociopolitical angle of songs here like “Poem For The People” and “Liberation,” might’ve sounded precious then (and now), but the muscularity in the musicianship compensated at least in part. And when the easy-listening likes of “If You Leave Me Now” came to dominate the repertoire, an even more fundamental shift occurred at the expense of Terry’s versatility with his instrument; there were points Chicago approached the perimeter of jazz-rock fusion in early years, invariably via the blues their late guitarist favored, not to mention his funk excursions like “Takin’ It On Uptown.” Such rousing interludes, however, are a far cry from a growing predilection for crowd-pleasing, while a clean audio mix, prepped by bandmember Lee Loughnane for this release from a variety of sources, is noticeably compressed, lacking a depth that cements the impression of superficiality.

DVD: VI Decades Live reaches a revelatory conclusion of sorts on the DVD, the two-hours plus of content including a complete performance as broadcast on Germany’s Rockpalast television series, plus a single excerpt from the 1983 Dick Clark-produced TV special Chicago in the Rockies. The band’s technique remains beyond reproach during both segments, but such expertise was now all too noticeably subsumed to the craft of all-too-often faceless pop like “Skin Tight.” A notable exception, not surprisingly, is the presence of Terry Kath: standing out not only by way of his attire—a floppy cap and hockey jersey in contrast to the feathered hair cuts and gauche haberdashery of the times—his guitar playing sounds even more frenetic in its placid surroundings; to be fair, his own latter-day originals like “Once or Twice” are somewhat unremarkable, but that material is at least permeated with honest emotion rather than the saccharine platitudes that populate hits of the time “Saturday in the Park” and “Just You ‘n’ Me,” The short video coda of “What’s This World Comin’ To,” ostensibly filmed in the Rocky Mountain studio site of their albums (and prominently featuring producer James William Guercio at the board), is all too representative of the homogeneity that afflicted Chicago’s music as it evolved.

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