I Saw Chicago Last Night and Your Mom Is Probably Jealous

Chicago (in 2015)
Earth Wind & Fire (in 2015)
July 15, 2015
Concord Pavilion 

A woman driving a large passenger van slows down next to me and shouts out of the window, “Need a ride?”  

I'm sick of walking up this seemingly never-ending hill to the Concord Pavilion, so I accept her offer, hoping to find myself in a van with an old rocker who has tales of early Chicago and Earth Wind & Fire shows. Alas, the woman is just a driver for the venue-run shuttle service. I could describe her, but instead, just think about your high school yard-duty lady. That's her. Only instead of grilling kids about trying to escape campus during lunch, she's getting barraged with complaints from the dad sitting next to me. He's upset about the venue's parking situation.

“It's a little ridiculous, the price we pay for tickets, and they can't even build a parking garage,” he barks at the driver. It's only her third night on the job and she's clearly not in a decision-making position.

[jump] He's rude, but correct. I check my watch (JK LOLz, it's 2015, I checked my phone) and note the time. It's 8:45 p.m. and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Earth Wind & Fire (or, at least, what's left of them) only have 5 minutes left in their scheduled set, and I'm stuck in a van with a bunch of disgruntled, middle-aged Chicago fans; it's a fucking nightmare.

Eventually I get dropped off at the entrance of the Concord Pavilion, collect my tickets at will call, and casually stroll into the venue without anyone stopping me to check my tickets…? I head for the restrooms.

“They could use another 25 of these,” an older woman remarks, loudly enough for everyone else in line for the porta potty to hear. She's rude, but correct. In the same line (about 20 people deep), a woman notes that her husband, a disabled veteran, was turned away from the handicapped parking lot because it was at capacity.

I haven't seen the stage yet, but this is one of the worst-run concerts I've ever been to.

Just as I start to worry that, one day, I'll turn into one of these grumpy people, a hype man on the stage just over the hill expels every breath in his lungs with war cry-like urgency: “Chicagoooooo!

I head to my designated seat as one of the world's best-selling groups of all time starts soft-rocking the crowd with “Make Me Smile,” and find a middle-aged couple already sitting in them. There's nowhere else for me to sit, but the couple refuses to acknowledge my existence until I enlist the help of a flashlight person, who pries them from the seats. They motion to me like, “Come on man, we stole those seats fair and square,” as Chicago heads into the chorus. 

“I'm so happy, that you love me / Life is lovely, when you're near me / Tell me you will stay / Make me smile”

Onstage, Jimmy Pankow, the trombone player and one of the group's founding member, is having fun. He dances circles around the rest of the petrified horn section, which looks like someone forced the dads of a little league team to stand up off the bleachers and do half-hearted synchronized dance moves. Pankow, in comparison, seems to channel Shakira, intent on proving his hips don't lie, shaking them in rhythm with the band and playing to the crowd the whole night. It seems the whole world has changed around him, but Pankow's still just doing what he loves: playing trombone in Chicago, and playing it like he means it.

Walfredo Reyes, Jr., the newest, and clearly most excited member of Chicago, pounds on bongos with so much enthusiasm it's hard to tell if tonight is the greatest night of his life or if he's just the corniest performer in the world. Maybe both. At the end of the show, when all the members take a bow, he will receive one of the biggest pops from the audience — a sign that whether contrived or authentic, his enthusiastic performance connects with the audience in a way that most of the veteran members of Chicago gave up on long ago.

Visually, Chicago utilizes 1991-looking graphics on its big screen, comically overlaying images of fireworks on top of different members faces while they take turns soloing. The screen also displays plenty of B-roll footage of couples holding hands during love songs like “You're the Inspiration.”

The mostly grey-haired members of the crowd thoroughly enjoy the set, but despite various calls from the band, they refuse to completely stand on their feet until “Saturday in the Park.”

Robert Lamm, another original member who wrote many of the band's hits, including “Saturday,” seem comes to life (at least a little bit) for his vocal delivery of the old hit. As he sings the line “a man selling ice cream,” the big screen helps carry along the narrative by displaying a man in a park selling ice cream. 

But during the well-rehearsed, polished performance, the truly entertaining stuff isn't going on onstage — it's in the crowd of roughly 12,000, where Chicago fans scramble to capture pieces of their youth on their smartphones.

I watch a woman to my left attempt to Instagram the band six times in a row while her phone repeatedly tells her she doesn't have enough memory. She then tries to shoot video with the same result. Next to her, a woman gets the whole thing on a vertical video (she changes to horizontal halfway through after noticing her friend's technique).

To my right, an older gentleman uses his military training, taking a knee to steady his phone's flash photography. Two rows in front of me, a woman receives a text from her friend Evelyn that says, “My boss is making me come in early to work tomorrow, ugh :(” — which is actually proof that she knows more about her phone than I do, because I have no idea how you can make the font size that big. 

Chicago follows “Saturday in the Park” with a brief, but inspired rendition of “Feelin' Stronger Everyday,” leaving the stage to a standing ovation. 

After some chanting from the crowd, the group returns with its good friends, Earth Wind & Fire, and busts into a 24-person performance of EWF's “September.” The crowd gets on its feet and really starts mom-dancing with an intensity Chicago alone was never able to elicit. But excitement aside, Philip Bailey, usually a brilliant vocalist, seems timid on the mic, often messing with his earpiece, missing notes, and generally not have a good set. Perhaps he blew his voice out during EWF's earlier set while I was in that passenger van, but right now, he sounds awful, and his facial expressions makes it seem like he'd rather be anywhere else in the world than onstage singing to this crowd.

The jumbled sound of 24 people playing instruments make it difficult to decipher individual contributions, besides Verdine White's, EWF's bassist, who marches around the stage plucking his bass with all the fervor most of the performers lack. Chicago's bass player, Jason Scheff mostly stays out of his way, content to let White control the funkified bass lines and only chip in with vocals — something he does a terrific job of during the group's performance of Chicago's “25 or 6 to 4.”


— “'Saturday in the Park' sounded great live!”

— An Earth Wind and Tired man argued with his partner after the concert, “Honey, I think we parked on the gravel.”

— A woman behind me during the show said in a low, slightly embarrassed, but honest voice, “I want the trombone player.”

The show was the kickoff of Chicago and Earth Wind & Fire's nationwide summer tour. Click here to see when they play your mom and dad's town.

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