Chicago celebrated its 35th anniversary with a hearteningly energetic two-hour show Friday night at the Greek Theater, thoroughly mining its deep catalog of hits yet also sprinkling the set with less-predictable picks and brief, refreshing spurts of jazz.
Though it’s not fashionable to say so, Chicago’s amazing longevity is probably unparalleled and curiously overlooked. After all, with the exception of a brief patch around 1980-81, they had a 20-year run (1970-90) in the higher reaches of the singles and album charts, longer than any other American rock group of that time. And jazz buffs might ponder this: Can you think of another frontline horn section that has stayed intact for 35 years?
It’s true that Chicago’s most creative period remains the span from 1969 until the mid-late ’70s, before ballad fever took hold — and the years since the hits ran out have yielded mostly repackagings (Rhino put out a new one in July), along with a Christmas CD and a swing-era tribute.
Nevertheless, Chicago reminded us just how adventurous those early years could be, leading with the audacious (for 1970), tightly executed “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” that yielded two early hits, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.” They pulled out an obscure, swinging Latin boogaloo from “Chicago VII” called “Mongonucleosis” and the horns, as well as Walt Parazaider on flute, demonstrated that they still can play good jazz.
With the pressure to put out hits now behind them, they ought to explore these directions more; as is, the freedom of jazz and the vigor of Latin rhythms keep their signature sound — and many of the hits — fresh.
Indeed, a high quota of Chicago’s hits proved to be remarkably durable live, freed of the embalming constrictions of oldies radio, punched out with conviction by the four remaining founding members — keyboardist Robert Lamm, trombonist James Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and Parazaider — and the other four, who have been in the band for anywhere from seven to 21 years themselves. And one tune in particular, 1972’s “Dialogue,” appears not to have dated at all; what it says about apathy, war and the president applies just as forcefully to the Iraq situation today as it did to Vietnam 30 years ago.
Opening for Chicago on Friday was JND, a young San Luis Obispo band whose horn section often punctuates its music like the headliners.