Every so often I’ll pull up an old album I haven’t heard in ages and it will be like hearing it for the first time. During a long drive this weekend I pulled up Chicago XI. As a former trombone player, I’ve naturally been a Chicago fan for a long time. Chicago’s James Pankow is probably the only trombonist in history to achieve “rock star” status, after all.
Following the release of this album, guitarist and lead singer, Terry Kath would die tragically because of an accident with a gun. Chicago had lost a founding member and a major creative force. Arguably this tragedy is responsible for the band becoming known more for top-40 ballads than the experimental jazz/rock fusion of its early years. This last album with Kath is the last album with all the original band members and it’s broad range of musical styles (from R&B to jazz to orchestral arrangements) makes me wonder what direction the band might have gone in had Kath survived.
- Mississippi Delta City Blues is a funky track with some signature Chicago horn breaks that really displays Terry Kath’s unique guitar playing and vocal styles. It’s one of my favorite Chicago tunes. The song was recently re-recorded by former Chicago drummer, Danny Seraphine’s group California Transit Authority (CTA)–with current Tower of Power lead singer, Larry Braggs, on lead vocals. That track from CTA’s CD Full Circle is also excellent.
- Baby, What a Big Surprise is evocative of the group’s later ballads and is oddly the only track on the album with Peter Cetera doing lead vocals.
- Till the End of Time is one of the few tracks in the band’s library with one of the horn players doing lead vocals–Jimmy Pankow, who also wrote the song. The love song has a ’50s, almost Fats Domino-esque feel. Not one of Pankow’s best compositions considering that he wrote many of the group’s big hits, but it’s not bad.
- Policeman is a simple track sung by Robert Lamm. The jazzy melody features lyrics which are a sympathetic portrayal of the troubled life of a city cop.
- Take Me Back to Chicago is a nostalgic exploration of the band’s roots in the windy city. The lyrics eerily tell the listener to “Take me back to Chicago and lay my soul to rest” and “remember me at my best,” seemingly foreshadowing Kath’s untimely death. The song begins softly and builds to a funky R&B crescendo with guest vocalist Chaka Khan joining Kath in tremendously soulful vocal improvisations that continue as the song fades out. I wish they had let that closing jam session continue a little longer.
- Vote For Me also features lead vocalist and keyboard player Robert Lamm who is often referred to as the band’s “conscience.” Chicago was never overtly political but when they ventured into political themes it was often in songs written by Lamm. This particular one is a fun, satirical look at the promises politicians make to get elected. One line seems oddly current: “I’ll build a railroad, Jack, with new trains and new track, from Waikiki to old Delaware…” Political junkies should give this one a listen.
- Takin’ it on Uptown again features Kath on vocals and guitars. You can hear a bit of Jimi Hendrix influence on both here. There’s also a definite R&B feel mixed in as well. Interesting backup vocals. Good track for any Kath fan.
- This Time is another song featuring a horn player on lead vocals, this time with trumpeter Lee Loughnane. Peter Cetera is featured on the chorus vocals and there’s the signature Jimmy Pankow horn arrangement and Terry Kath guitar solo.
- The Inner Struggles of a Man is an orchestral intro which begins a three track piece which wraps up the album. Dominic Frontiere arranged the strings featured on other album tracks and did the orchestration for Inner Struggles. From the group’s beginnings they liked to record pieces with multiple movements–Ballet for a Girl in Buchanan from Chicago II most notably. This piece reminds me a lot of the soaring orchestral interlude in the album version of Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues.
- Prelude (Little One) is a short track with Kath on vocals that bridges the end of Inner Struggles and the next song, Little One.
- Little One is a song about a road musician’s relationship with his child. Kath sings lead on this ballad which is reminiscent of something by Earth Wind & Fire or the Commodores. Fat horn lines and string section feature big as well as Peter Cetera on backup vocals.
A more recent release unnecessarily tacks on tracks, Wish I could Fly and Paris, which don’t really add anything to the album in my opinion. The original list was a work of art and these were obviously cut from the original release for a reason.
If you’ve read this far, you probably know more about this one album than you ever wanted to. I hope you check it out though. Due to Kath’s untimely death, this is arguably the last “real” Chicago album, the subsequent ones being from a new band with different creative influences.