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CHICAGO

Chicago Transit Authority
Rating: 5
Squirm factor: 2
   I confess to a long-stranding fascination with Chicago (at least in the Terry Kath era) — not for their songwriting, which is haphazard, but for their unique sound and utterly unartful lyrics. These guys had talent and ambition, but no perspective on which amount of the latter was appropriate to the former. In other words, they wanted to change the world but the world was changing anyway, so they always seemed a step behind.
   The standard critical summary of the band is that they were jazz-rockers who followed Blood, Sweat & Tears up the charts but never matched BST’s artistic achievements and later sold out with increasingly lame ballads. But, aside from a horn section and sharing a producer, there’s not a lot in common between the two groups. BST were jazz-rockers, featuring a number of veteran hipsters and playing things like “Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie” and “God Bless the Child.” But Chicago thought of themselves as “rock with horns”, and their music doesn’t have much in the way of jazz progressions or rhythms. In fact, they’re not all that close to rock either, except in some of the acid-rock chord progressions. The music of Chicago has its roots in a form that was extremely popular in the sixties but has largely escaped our memories: middle-of-the-road pop. Think Herb Alpert, Tom Jones, Petula Clark; these acts were HUGE throughout the decade, and Chicago’s music bears a lot of the influence of that style.
   The really intriguing part of their sound is not just the occasionally well-crafted pop tune, but the arrangements. See, those horns really did make them stand out. James Pankow, the trombonist, also wrote all the horn lines, and he departed radically from any of the standard horn styles then prevailing; instead of unison soul-style jabs or blanched out chords, the Chicago horns (trombone, trumpet and sax) each play a different, moving line, and sound like a lot more than three guys. Producer J.W. Guercio does a terrific job recording them, too — the sounds are bright and full, but never harsh, and the mix integrates them well with the rest of the band.
   The other remarkable element of Chicago’s sound was that they had the best Hendrix imitator around in guitarist Terry Kath. If you ever wondered what Hendrix would sound like playing Vegas, your questions are answered with this group. For every inspired moment, Kath lays about ten overlong sloppy solos.
   The more typical elements of the band are quite competent, too. Danny Seraphine and Peter Cetera form one of those typically active acid-rock rhythm sections, and Robert Lamm’s keyboards are the glue which holds all the ingredients together. The group does well with vocals, too, with Lamm’s smooth baritone leading on the big hits, and Kath’s gruff soul man stylings (much like his guitar playing — passionate but more than occasionally missing the note) contrasting nicely with Peter Cetera’s precisely formal tenor (Cetera sings like a man who learned English as a second language, which he may have done — one unremarked-upon fact about Chicago is that they may have been the most successful “ethnic” band ever, consisting of three Poles, two Germans, an Italian, and an Irish-American, back in a time when ethnic neighborhoods still thrived and lots of kids learned the language of the old country growing up.)
   So, with all this talent and imagination going for them, why such a low rating? Well, while the high points are quite enjoyable, there’s simply too much fluff. The group takes a single album’s worth of ideas and inflates it to a double. For example, I love the tunes of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings”; they’re solidly in the pop craft tradition, with lovely arching melodies, intriguing chord patterns, and quality hooks. But, does “Time” really need a minute’s worth of piano doodling at the beginning? Does “Beginnings” need a solo from each of the horn players at the end, then a lengthy, tuneless percussion jam at the end? (That said, trumpeter Lee Loughnane is the star of the horn section on side one, with a classic filigree to kick off “Time”, and some smooth playing on “Beginnings”.) Almost all of side four is taken up with “Liberation”, a good idea that goes bad quickly and stays there for fourteen minutes. Pankow’s horn riff is exhilarating, a speedy line that is a real grabber. But after only a couple times through the tune sinks into a guitar jam that goes on for at least ten minutes. I guess if you like this stuff, it’s fine, but a little lead guitar goes a long way. The end is fascinating, though, as the horn section demonstrates its grasp of dynamics with sudden crescendoes into a brief reprise of the main theme. “South California Purples” (I guess that’s the blues sung by a bunch of Reds?) takes its moderately interesting riff and again drives it into the ground, and “Poem 58” is a three-minute swamp-rocker preceded by five minutes of guitar wankery. There’s even a cut called “Free Form Guitar,” which you might listen to once if you’re tolerant. It’s the sound of Kath’s guitar feeding back for almost six minutes. Sure, the feedback gets louder and quieter and higher and lower, but it’s nonetheless dreadful. It’s bizarre how a group with such a natural instinct for tunefulness doesn’t recognize the monotony of some of these recordings.
   So, with all the bombast stripped away, what’s left? Great pop tunes with odd lyrics. The aforementioned “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” is the perfect example. Robert Lamm wants to rebel against everything that’s holding back “the People”, and I guess that includes the pressures of modern society to make everyone stick to their schedules, blah blah blah. But the way he phrases his objections (“does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?”) seem like he thinks anyone who can read a clock is a deluded fool. And you just want to object: “Does anybody really know what time it is?” (Yes, they’ve got a very accurate clock at the Naval Observatory). “Does anybody really care?” (Apparently, as you’ve got complete strangers in the verses of your songs asking you.) It’s just odd, that’s all.
Other fine tunes abound. “Questions 67 and 68” has a classically-motivated stepwise melody that’s perfectly suited to Cetera’s vocal style, and “Someday”, despite its assertion that the Chicago 7 were some kind of martyrs, glides on a great vocal. “I’m a Man” is a cover of the Stevie Winwood song that has Kath doing a very cool volume-knob trick and one of the finer drum solos I’ve heard, because it’s not a drum solo, it’s percussion ensemble. As the horn section whips out the claves, guiros and maracas (playing some very intricate rhythms — the Knowl-Tones rehearsed this once, and the clave part gave me fits), Seraphine plays against them for some very entertaining patterns.
What can I say? I dig this group, but Chicago Transit Authority provides about equal measures of pop pleasure, dubious societal insight, and guitar tedium. If I weren’t so admiring of the audacity of their vision, I might slag it completely. (Robert Christgau gave it a D+).
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READER COMMENTS

  • From Anthony Bertolotti: Why must everyone think about this music so much and just not sit back and enjoy it for what it is? Why must you say "Does there really have to be a jam percussion session at the end of ‘Beginnings’"? Who cares?? It's really cool to listen to and if you really hate listening to cowbells and maracas that much, skip to the next track. And as for Kath, Hendrix said that Kath was better than him, so for goodness’ sake, give the guy some credit. He had no formal training either and his solos were incredibly soulful. His solos on this album were in no way sloppy and I hear everyone complain about “Free Form Guitar” but no one ever says a word about what Hendrix (who I do like) did to “The Star Spangled Banner”. And as for not liking the double album, I think it's remarkable because they put out three double LPs in 2 years and were on the road over 600 days in the those same two years. That's nothing to sneeze at. Chicago may have overdone a few things but they didn't over-do it with bad music. You know everybody praises each song individually but says that the album was a failure or wasn't good. Why doesn't every body stop trying to sound so smart and musically educated and just let people know that this is a good album to listen to?!!!
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Hug bunny." Steve says: "As a matter of fact, they do over-do it on bad music. Hence my review. As for guitar heroes, I would say that Jimi wasn't real good at knowing when to shut up either. Thanks for writing!"

    II
    Rating: 6
    Squirm factor: 2
       The group gets better second time out, because the pool of songwriters expands, and the need for vinyl-filling jams therefore decreases. What’s more, Pankow’s contributions, while including extended instrumentals, are more composed than improvised, and to my ears that makes a difference. Unfortunately, they devote most of another side to an extended revue of one of their lamest numbers, and another half a side to dull chamber music. The lyrics get more strident and anti-establishment, though, and the liner notes contain this famous statement: “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution.......And the revolution in all of its forms.” (Insert your own Peter Cetera/Amy Grant joke here.)
       The album kicks off with a classic moment, as the horns slide in and out of each other’s way to announce “Movin’ In”, which offers another too-hip-for-its-own-good lyric. “But most of all we like to play / A song or two that makes you feel / Like all the good in you is real.” Enjoyable backing vocals, though, and Walt Parazaider plays what may be the most squalling, atonal sax solo ever cut. “The Road” follows, immediately destroying all “good in me” by proposing anonymous sex with groupies — yes, way to affirm equal rights and dignity for all! Musicially, it’s quite adventurous, with Kath squealing little scales under the vocal lines and the horns subverting the modality. “Poem for the People” is a comedown musically, with Lamm’s vocal a bit whiny and the melody paling compared to other songs here. And Lamm continually sings, “If the People only knew...” as if he’s not a person. “In the Country” is a fabulous yet overlooked tune in the Chicago canon. Kath plays some bubbly acoustic licks and delivers a fine, soulful tune that quickly changes into a rocking middle with powerful horn charts darting around some soaring lead lines. Cetera’s turn on “I do love you” is simply beautiful.
       Side two is best of the album, with one perfect Beatles knockoff and a suite that’s 80% successful. “Wake Up Sunshine” shows the riches of this band’s catalog — for any other group, it would have been a surefire hit single, but it wasn’t even released because “Make Me Smile,” “Color My World” and “25 or 6 to 4” were all big hits. It’s got that McCartney-patented quarter-note piano line, some tricky backing harmonies, and a beautiful love lyric. I wish someone would revive this song. Pankow’s suite “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” follows, and it’s a good one. Pankow really works the horns, with a roiling rhythm under lurching stabs that open into “Make Me Smile,” featuring a tense verse, the melody tight against the beat, opening into brilliant major chords in the vocal harmony. The horns trickle down some arpeggios into the weak “So Much to Say, So Much to Give” with a lumbering melody, but the next two programmatic pieces, “Anxiety’s Moment” and “West Virginia Fantasies” feature good arrangements of the themes. “Colour My World” (note “u” to fool all the Anglophiles who couldn’t possibly guess where a band named Chicago is from) is another popular number that is actually pretty dull. The piano line is actually just a twelve-bar blues played very legato, and horns don’t do much behind a simple vocal line. “To Be Free” nicely ups the pace with a reprise of the earlier arpeggios taken faster, and the whole thing concludes with another go-round of the “Make Me Smile” melody. I love that chorus!
       Side three has one high point and a lot of weaker moments. “Fancy Colours” wants to be psychedelic, I guess, but it mostly drones on the chorus, where “25 or 6 to 4” sounds completely spaced out but is straight. (Here’s the big secret of the title: it was late at night, and Lamm couldn’t see his watch well enough to distinguish the second hand from the minute hand. Thus it might have been 25 to 4, or 6 to 4.) The horns on this song are killer, sliding in and out, blasting from various points of the scale, never in unison, and Kath for once has a song that suits his lead style, so his wailing is quite effective. Unfortunately, his other spotlight on this side is a four-part variation on a lazy Romantic melody. It starts with three orchestral arrangements that are almost indistinguishable, then Kath takes over with a warm, rich vocal that doesn’t have any direction; it just meanders through the chord progression. To be honest, I kept falling asleep on this number.
       Side four is another disaster. “It Better End Soon” is a long rant about something (injustice or war or oppression, it’s not real clear) that is built on a cliched guitar line, and a horn line that simply doubles the guitar. At three minutes, it might be uneventful but tolerable. But no, Chicago makes it the showpiece of the album, sticking on a nice enough guitar solo, then an extended flute piece which showcases Parazaider to the detriment of his reputation. His flute tone is breathy and shrill, and his improvisations are rudimentary. There’s an especially excruciating moment when Kath and Parazaider exchange grunts and high-pitched flute blasts three or four times. After the flute excursion is an improvised vocal workout from Kath, in which he melismas his way far away from the tonality, and expresses profound insights like “They're killing everybody, I wish it weren't true / They say we got to make war / Or the economy will fall / But if we don't stop / We won't be around no more.” Umm, yeah, preach it! Fortunately, Peter Cetera gets in his first composition to leave us with a better aftertaste. His loping bassline provides the foundation for a nice little tune, “Where Do We Go From Here?” It’s no great shakes, but at least it’s tuneful and less obnoxious than what came before.
    The best parts of Chicago’s first two albums would have been one of the best pop albums, ever. It’s a real shame they diluted the good stuff with so much blather.
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    III
    Rating: 6
    Squirm factor: 4
       This is a small improvement in some ways, and a regression in others, so notch it a high 6 instead of a low 6 for II. Putting out their third double album in less than two years, it’s natural that the band would be running low on ideas, and this surprisingly works to their advantage, because Chicago was never a band whose strength was weeding out bad ideas.
       The improvement comes in the form of much less instrumental bombast; there are surely lots of instrumental passages, but fewer of them are time-filling solos and more are well-arranged passages integrated into the compositions. The regression comes in a noticeable lack of melodic inspiration. There’s only one top-class MOR ballad here, and lots of the rockers are more formulaic than previously.
       That said, the band is still admirably pushing boundaries, particularly in taking the “jazz-rock” label seriously for once. There are several impressive stabs at incorporating jazz rhythms and cadences into these songs, and I for one find them quite enjoyable. “Sing a Mean Tune Kid” kicks off the album with a tight swinging groove and a very cool horn line playing against the rhythms. The harmonized vocal (major fourths?) is a great touch, putting a musical edge to match the aggressive lyric. For the first five minutes, it’s a great concept, and incorporates a duet between soprano sax and clean guitar that’s one of the instrumental highlights of the band’s career, but the last half of the song is more guitar goop that undermines the groove and eventually degenerates into a detuned fuzz. “Loneliness is Just a Word” follows up with another swinging groove, this time from the organ, and Lamm lays down a great vocal, with all sorts of glides and melismas. Other jazzy features are the trombone breaks in “Mother.” The song proper rides on a propulsive electric piano line (foreshadowing “Radar Love” with its ahead-of-the-beat left hand eighth notes), but after the verses – which themselves feature some high-flying horn commentary on the melodic phrases – the band slips into a jazzier groove while Pankow double-tracks some free jazz-styled licks. To end the song, they go into jazz ballad mode and let him smooth out any jangled nerves (and this is definitely an agitating song) with Dorsey-style slowdance moves.
       A couple of the more standard-style compositions don’t rise above their origins, however. “I Don’t Want Your Money” is typical white-boy blues boogie, kind of like Savoy Brown with horns. Despite Kath’s best efforts to project a soulful vocal, it’s nothing special. Both of Peter “Et” Cetera’s numbers are pedestrian. “Lowdown” simply rides a couple open chords, but does have a catchy chorus. “What Else Can I Say” seems underscrutinized by the arrangers. The opening section has a lick that doesn’t quite resolve, and then the song moves into a new harmonic plan and we never hear from that section again, while the groove keeps shifting and never really catches hold. And where are the horns? Kath’s other big contribution is a keeper, though. “An Hour in the Shower” is presented as a suite, but it’s really just a moderately paced rocker with a couple of bridges. Riding on Kath’s country-blues acoustic guitar and intriguingly quotidian lyrics (“Now I usually have my breakfast/Which consists of tasty spam”), the band lights a fire with a horn line straight out of Herb Alpert and a wonderfully bemused vocal performance.
       There are a couple of the band’s trademark long-form pieces, and as usual, Pankow shows the strongest grasp of extended composition. Lamm’s effort, “Travel Suite” doesn’t hang together musically so much as lyrically, and I’ve never been the biggest fan of songs about rock stars travelling. If there were more songs about how interesting and exciting travel is, I’d go for it, but they’re usually about being lonely and bored. Not that I’m not sympathetic, but after “Homeward Bound” was it really necessary for anyone ever to write on the topic again? Anyway, Lamm writes three terrific numbers here, and crams them together with pointless jamming. “Flight 602” is the most Crosby, Stills and Nash-like number that isn’t on an America album, with its bouncy melody and closely wrought harmonies, and it succeeds on CSN’s terms, but not Chicago’s (that is, it’s “touching” and “fun” but not “powerful” or “impressive”). Then there’s a drum solo; if you like drum solos, it’s got lots of fast licks, if you don’t, it’s mercifully short. “Free” follows, and you may have seen it in a car commercial (way to fight the power, guys!). It has a powerful chorus, with a stacked harmony on a jazzy chord, and moves into a terrific groove for the verses; I wish it had a bit more in the lyrics department, because at about two minutes it seems too short. I guess they had to make room for a seven-minute (although it seems much longer) flute improvisation; again, I say the relationship between Walt Parazaider and the flute should have been kept in the closet. All is redeemed with “At the Sunrise”, one of Lamm’s most gorgeous ballads, with a rich piano foundation, a sumptuous vocal from that glorious baritone, and a bridge that soars. Another should-have-been-a-hit that got buried in the immense catalog of Chicago. The closing number, “Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home”, is pure fun, with the group harmonizing “la-la-la-la” over a Latin groove. Another flute solo intrudes, but it’s peppy.
       Pankow’s “Elegy” fills side four, and it’s quite remarkable. Aside from the stupid poem Lamm recites to open, there’s hardly a bad moment; I’m not a huge fan of instrumental music, but this really engages my attention. The opening “Canon” shows just how rich three horns can sound, playing moving lines around each other. “Once Upon a Time” is soft and pretty, but the melody could use a second movement, as it keeps repeating the first motif. “Progress” is a tone-poem, designed to capture the sounds of modern industry. Unfortunately, it succeeds, modern industry not having such a euphonious sound. But “The Approaching Storm” kicks all sorts of behind. It’s a solo showcase, but almost all of the players get a spot, so each of them is pared down to just a few bars, and everyone’s tight and concise. It helps that the underlying riff is a well-stated major fifth that leaves all sorts of harmonic room. Parazaider and Kath each turn in their best solos in the band’s output. The sax piece draws on be-bop stylings and fifties rock-and-roll rhythms, while the guitar solo is played clean with all sorts of jazz runs. Even Lamm, who doesn’t solo much elsewhere, throws down a Hammond organ solo in best Young Rascals fashion. The whole suite wraps up with a disjointed concluding theme that doesn’t display the sort of finesse Pankow used earlier to tie up the melodic threads of “Ballet for a Girl from Buchannon”, and concludes the album a bit confusedly.
       Chicago III finds the band a bit exhausted in the songwriting department, but getting better at toning down the instrumental excess. Not the place to start with this band, but a good purchase if you’re already hooked.
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    READER COMMENTS

  • From Jay Ehrlich: You know, nobody has reviewed Chicago VI, VII, VIII, X, XI..... Just for the record, I've had Chicago II since 1971, but after reading your reviews, (and G. Starosin’s) I went out and got Chicago III...(EXCELLENT).. Chicago Transit...whoa..I only heard this a couple times...It smokes!... Chicago V is great, so I got VI, it's a whole hey softer, but it still has some great songs, and "What's This World Coming To?" out-winters Edgar Winter's White Trash.....it is super tight HOT FUNKY...Damn, the whole album should have been that good.... and VII is the jazz album, but it’s got drum solos and synth and it's a double album for a single album price... VIII is almost a rocking album ( yeah, I know...Albums...I'm dating myself...no one else wants me..... wah..) X is alright, and XI..(Kath's last album before he died..)..has “Takin’ It Uptown”, which is just a three piece rocker...I knew that musicians this good couldn't totally lose their fire...when Pete's on, he plays some of the killerest bass I've ever heard.. especially on “I Just Want To Be FREE”...that is HOT bass playing....and I wanna be free, so the lyrics are meaningful, especially if you were facing getting drafted to Viet Nam… thankfully, my truly pacifist butt never got drafted..the draft ended two months after I signed up....also, I love Terry Kath's singing and geetaring, and Danny was one of my original drum influences, and I naturally think like he does...I would have done a lot of things the same as he did, if I practiced as much as he did...thanks for your reviews, and if you have any of these other albums, check out the good parts again .....
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "What's on your pizza?." Steve says: "I've got all of the Kath-era albums (except Live at Carnegie Hall). I'd say VI is a drag, VII is very interesting, VII and X are formless, and XI has a lot of quality tracks. You're right about Cetera's bass work – in fact, all of the players are quite talented (but not necessarily at improvisation), their main problem is poorly thought-out song ideas. Thanks for writing!"

    V
    Rating: 8
    Squirm factor: 4
       Chicago finally boils down their act into a single LP (albeit a remarkably long one, at nearly 45 minutes) and presents their finest effort. They’ve grown tighter, and Robert Lamm – who contributes 8 of the 10 tracks – is on a hot streak with his songwriting. This album is a remarkable fusion of MOR pop and a new element to Chicago’s style, progressive rock.
       The very first cut, “A Hit by Varèse” (which, incidentally, was neither a hit nor by Varèse), demonstrates the band’s newfound confidence in their chops. Peter Cetera, whose playing through the album is stunning, contributes a knuckle-breaking 12/8 bass riff into which the band intersperses a King Crimson-esque ascending riff. The moment when all three horn players contribute uncoordinated solos simultaneously may be reminiscent of the song’s eponym (I’m not sure, I haven’t boned up on my avant-garde twentieth-century composers) but it’s still unfortunate. However, the organ breaks are killer.
       Other progressive moments include “While the City Sleeps” which inverts the group’s usual arrangements by having the horns create the opening rhythm (in an impressive display of double-tonguing) while the rhythm section lays out a strident riff. You might question whether the authorities are really “trying to kill us all” (after all, who would they have left to tax?), but the paranoid lyrics are well-matched to the harsh harmonies. “Now That You’ve Gone” shows Danny Seraphine to be a gifted and imaginative drummer, as his misleading introduction (he lays out a 6/8 beat but by putting the accent on the fifth beat makes it feel like a long 4/4 until the horns come in), and subtly shifts times throughout, gliding easily into 5/4 for the bridge and a regular rock beat for the verses. Terry Kath’s soulful vocal is a highlight of his career, as he hits all the notes and never misplays an intonation.
       The group’s original inspiration isn’t neglected either: this is the last time Chicago would draw from that classic MOR sound, unfortunately, but they do it well. “Goodbye” is a classic lounge crooner’s song, with elaborate Basie-style horns in the introduction, and absolutely gorgeous harmonies. And what may be the Chicago’s finest song ever is present: “Saturday in the Park” has one of the most engaging piano licks to grace the Top 40, with a shifting left hand under peppy chords. The rhythm section is constantly spicing up the track, with the straight beat sliding into a shuffle for the bridge, and bass licks cropping up to comment on the melody. Lamm’s vocal is a stunner, too, with a smooth delivery in rich tones. This guy is a hell of a singer.
       Speaking of original inspirations, the idea that the band started with, “rock with horns,” is in evidence throughout. Every song features a horn arrangement, and many of them are stunning in their complexity and beauty. “Goodbye” blends a cool jazz leading voice with bossa nova harmonies, and “Now That You’ve Gone” shows the entire section capable of playing remarkably fast licks without showing any sloppiness. "State of the Union" even features Parazaider on baritone sax for that Motown sound. Most impressive is that producer James William Guercio had the horns triple-track their parts for a beefier sound. You can’t tell there are overdubs, because every attack and breath drawn is the same.    Guitarist Terry Kath is restrained somewhat in his lead playing, but he makes up for it with fantastic rhythm work. “Dialogue” is built almost entirely around his crisp throttled lick, and the band is able to sustain the groove for seven minutes without faltering. “State of the Union” is one of the few genuinely funky tracks Chicago ever made (as opposed to lots of fake funk later in their career), and its appeal can be attributed to Kath’s back-of-the-beat riff. (The lyrics mark the first appearance of irony in a Chicago song; whatever their shortcomings, Chicago’s lyrics were almost always sincere.)
       Chicago V is a highlight of the band’s career, all the more impressive for being recorded in only seven days. If they had continued to pursue this melodically appealing, rhythmically complex, and instrumentally challenging style of music, they would doubtless be considered one of the premier rock bands of the seventies, on a par with heavyweights like Yes and Led Zeppelin – their chops and their songwriting was that good. Sadly, this album marks the end of their innovative period. All but the most dedicated fans can stop collecting here and enjoy a fine collection of terrific horn-driven rock music. Only the foolhardy or the obsessed should continue with their further works.

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    READER COMMENTS

  • From J.C. Servello: Well, nothing personal, but the only thing overdone in this instance is your reviews. Perhaps in some cases you were too busy being clever rather than being smart. Or for some reason do you have an ax to grind?
    Agreed, Chicago was never a jazz-rock band, and in fact they were a rock band with horns. And true, their horn section lacked the tone and virtuosity of B, S, and T. But to summarize Terry Kath's guitar playing as sloppy is definitely off the mark. I'm sure by now you know of the well documented comments made by an amazed Jimi Hendrix after seeing Kath play at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. Hendrix told Chicago trumpter Lee Loughnane "Your guitarist is better than me." And Hendrix told Chicago producer James William Guercio "You know I'm pretty good. But this cat blows me away." Those are concise comments from a guitar giant, rather than what you implied to be the statements from someone who "didn't know when to shut-up, either."
    There is another area where our opinions greatly differ. While I agree that a little lead guitar goes a long way, it's also true that extended jams with long guitar solos were very common in those days - Hendrix's live material, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cream's live version of Spoonful at the Fillmore and their "Goodbye Cream" album, Alvin Lee at Woodstock (which was a lot of extended handclapping and blues-talk), to name a few. Kath was one of the elite guitarists that could actually pull it off.
    I would agree that Chicago subsequently became a lounge-act of sappy proportions. Admittedly, they lost their edge even before Terry Kath's death, and after that their fall accelerated that much faster. Still, Kath was a monster. Hendrix and Kath became friends, and after gigs they would practice together. It was Kath who helped Hendrix with feedback, and it is well known that Kath was doing those sounds before the group had even heard Hendrix. That information, along with any objective hearing of Kath's live material at the time would lead any fair minded person to realize that Kath was a guitarist who had spent time in the woodshed practicing his craft. An imitator he wasn't.
    I have several live Chicago CD's from their early years. The quality of some of the recordings are, in fact, abysmal. Having said that, Kath's playing is still awesome. The live version of "Liberation" at the Toronto Rock Festival in 1969 is a case in point. What chops! Yet he wasn't just a dry technician. He also played with feeling. His playing on this track is fast, energetic, and very bluesy - more bluesy than the studio version of the same song. Kath was a no-nonsense, blue-collar, by-your-bootstraps guitarist, and this is reflected in his playing. Kath played pretty black for a white cat, clearly moreso than Clapton, Page, or Beck at that time. His playing was flat-out bad-ass. When compared with Clapton's live work at that time, Kath's work on "Liberation" and other tunes on the live Toronto CD leave Clapton standing still.
    I also have the Live In Japan CD and Carnegie Hall CD. The critics panned the Carnegie Hall CD because many thought it to be a repetition of the first three albums in an overdone 4-album set. Even the band disliked some of it because the venue was not designed to handle amplified sound. And in several places the horns screech. Yet once again, Kath shined. He knew when to step back and when to let it rip. He did smooth bluesy material, but also did jazz-like numbers. Kath could rock mightily, but he could also swing and even "scat", something that the other rock guitarists of his day could only dream of. Furthermore, his rhythm guitar and accompaniment is nearly perfect. Speaking of his rhythm guitar, listen closely and you'll notice he can play rhythm and lead guitar simultaneously. And he was doing the hammer-on style of guitar when Van Halen was still a toddler. Kath's use of color, rhythm, texture, space, and hearing was far more sophisticated than his more recognized contemporaries. And he played with a greater range of ideas and use of the fretboard than any of the above guitarists of that time, also including Santana. Kath was simply more multi-dimensional than the other guitarists that received so much attention. He also played with a guitar that was not specially designed for him, which makes his accomplishments even more impressive. Kath is without question the most underrated guitarist in the history of rock and roll, and his name should be there with the all-time greats. And knowledgeable guitarists know it.
    As for the band itself, they had great moments in their early days, at least for the first 3 albums. The tune "Free" is really a song that allows for live improvisation, and in that live format it demonstrates what many of us know about early Chicago - they could really rock. And anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't really seen or heard them live. Another example of a great effort is their cover of "I'm a Man," which is really the definitive version of that tune. And to hear that tune performed live again demonstrates the strength of their rhythm section and the screaming power of Kath's guitar, especially the Cry-Baby Wah-Wah.
    Some might think "It Better End Soon" is too much, but they were trying something that most other groups musically wouldn't even conceptualize, much less attempt. I've heard Kath's vocal on the live version, and regardless of what you say, his vocals are soulful and well-done. And once again, his guitar work on the live version of "Sing a Mean Tune Kid" is mentally another level upward from the other rockers of his day. If Kath had access to today's technology, his potential could have been incredible. The sounds he produced with a simple pig-nose amp are impressive to say the least.
    The fact that Chicago's first three albums were all 2-sets is irrelevant in terms of attaching negative commentary to these works. In my opinion, a close listen to the compositions of Chicago V reveal glimpses of the changes they were about to undertake, although those changes were subtle at first. The last time I saw them live was shortly after the release of their 5th album. At that performance their sound was polished, but they lacked the fire and energy of their previous years. I remember being struck by the fact that they were all dressed in suits. After that, their quality declined, and for me personally, I lost interest in their work. But from time to time I revisit their early studio and live material and I am still impressed because it was good. And Terry Kath was considered by the band to be their best soloist, and he was also truly great in his own right.

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