Chicago show at Jazz Aspen is a homecoming for Robert Lamm
If You Go …
What: Chicago at the JAS June Experience
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Saturday, June 26, 8:30 p.m.
Cost: $65-$115 reserved seating
Tickets and more info: www.jazzaspensnowmass.org
JAS June Experience Lineup
Friday, June 26
5 p.m. Josefina Mendez (Free Lawn Party)
6 Count Basie Orchestra
8:30 Maceo Parker
Saturday, June 27
6 p.m. Bobby Mason (Free Lawn Party)
6:30 AC Jazz Project
Sunday, June 28
5 p.m. Jes Grew (Free Lawn Party)
7 Naturally 7
8:30 Rodrigo y Gabriela
Tickets and more info: www.jazzaspensnowmass.org
Robert Lamm may never have played the Benedict Music Tent before — his iconic rock band, Chicago, has never played anywhere in Aspen — but he knows the tent well.
Lamm, keyboardist, singer and founding member of Chicago, lived in Aspen on-and-off from 1972 until about a decade ago and routinely took in summer classical performances by the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra.
“I spent a lot of time in the tent and outside the tent listening to music over my years in Aspen,” said Lamm, who finally plays the tent himself with Chicago on Saturday in a headlining spot at the JAS June Experience.
Lamm began spending winters in Aspen in the early 1970s, in the early years of Chicago, following early hits like “Saturday in the Park,” “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World” and “25 or 6 to 4.” The band would take a break from touring, usually between Thanksgiving and February and he’d rent a condo here. Eventually Lamm bought a place downtown, then a home in the West End, then moved back into a condo on Ute Avenue. He raised a daughter here, who spent a post-college winter ski-bumming and working on Aspen Mountain.
Playing Aspen has never been in the cards until now, though. Since the mid-1980s the band has mostly toured on double-bills, playing arenas and large pavilions in the U.S. and Europe with acts such as The Beach Boys (the only American band with more Billboard-charting singles than Chicago), the Moody Blues and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
This summer, the band looked to do something different, and its agents mentioned the June Experience.
“One of them thought to ask if we’d ever played this Aspen jazz festival,” Lamm recalled. “He said, ‘Why not?’ I said ‘I don’t know.’ So here we are.”
A band like Chicago, with upward of 100 million records sold and songs that remain ubiquitous decades after they were recorded, has to walk a tightrope between staying creatively alive and pleasing fans. Some listeners might sneer at jukebox-style shows where bands phone it in regurgitating the hits, but they still want to hear those hits.
Chicago always play the hits, but they never phone it in. The band’s 13-member lineup — including founding members Lamm, Lee Loughane and James Pankow — are consummate, crowd-pleasing pros. The biggest stage on which they’ve showed this off was last year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, where they played a tight medley of “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings,” and “Saturday in the Park” with Lamm trading vocals (70-years-old, his are remarkably well-preserved vocals) with Robin Thicke, before backing Thicke up on a verse of “Blurred Lines.”
Chicago may be tempted to mix things up on their jazz-pop compositions, let the horn section duel and let Lamm play some jazz licks when the band is headlining a jazz festival, or to work up Latin arrangements for tours in Central America. But Chicago doesn’t.
“We find that the audience doesn’t want to hear jazz when they come to see Chicago,” Lamm said. “They want to hear the songs that they grew up with or that they hear on the radio all the time. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
So how, after doing it thousands of times for more than four decades, does playing “You’re the Inspiration” or “If You Leave Me Now” stay fresh for these musicians?
“The only way to approach it is to play it as perfectly as we can,” Lamm said. “To nail some little thing that the audience doesn’t even notice but that we notice. And that could be anything. We play the entire repertoire really, and try to play everything perfectly. But nothing gets played perfectly. So in a way it’s a very Zen exercise.”
Along with the chart-toppers, most nights the band works “Now,” the title track from its most recent album — last year’s “Chicago XXXVI: Now” — into its sets. The song is a catchy, cheerful and brass-infused soft rocker in the Chicago tradition. But with 23 studio albums (along with 13 live records and 9 Lamm solo discs) of material and all those hits to get to, most of the new stuff tends not to make it onstage.
“We’ve spent our career wrestling with how much of the new album to play,” Lamm said. “If we play three songs from that, it means three songs from the big repertoire that we don’t play and there’s some segment of the audience that goes away disappointed.”
Though they’re not likely to play much of the new record in concert, the remarkable way they made it is worth noting. Chicago’s members don’t all live in Chicago anymore — they’re spread across the U.S. They tour a lot. So, living together on the road, they decided, was the best time to make a record.
They consulted the late, legendary producer Phil Ramone for advice on how to pull it off, then put together recording equipment that they could fit in the belly of a tour bus, and made the album entirely on the road in hotel rooms and ballrooms with the mobile studio over 2013 and 2014. Producer Hank Linderman put the 11 tracks together back in Chicago and made it into a cohesive album.
“It was very creative and it gave us the opportunity to create on the spot,” Lamm said. “If we wanted to record an album, that was going to be the only way to do it. Now we know that it works and we’ll see what happens with the next one.”
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