2005, Rasputin Manifesto
Mention the rock group Chicago to any random person you meet, and Robert Lamm's name probably won't come to mind. Perhaps Peter Cetera's name might still be lingering in the memory of that random person, even though he quit the group two decades ago.
Lamm, however, is the only original lead singer left in Chicago (Terry Kath died in 1978 from an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound), and an unsung legend of sorts. He wrote the lion's share of the group's material in their early days, with songs like "Saturday In The Park," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and "25 or 6 to 4" - the latter sung by Cetera - becoming signature hits.
Yet who can name that voice, the smooth, calm tenor so well suited for telling tales of slow motion riders flying the colors of the day (in "Saturday in the Park"), or Lou the romeo who breaks hearts everywhere he goes (in the title track of Lamm's second solo album, Life Is Good In My Neighborhood)? It sounds so familiar though, doesn't it?
It's that sort of semi anonymity in the spotlight which makes Robert Lamm so special - he's a legendary figure, yet he can get away with staging a solo concert at a small venue like Hollywood's The Knitting Factory. In fact, his April 23 performance there was his first ever solo appearance on U.S. soil, coming a little more than a year after his debut solo performance in New Zealand.
All those who were lucky enough to gain entrance to the Knitting Factory that evening were treated to something that a Chicago concert has lacked for more than a decade - a generous helping of vital current material. In fact, only 4 of Lamm's performances were old Chicago favorites, and the lion's share of the rest were drawn from Lamm's most recent solo studio album, 2003's subtlety&passion (Blue Infinity).
Fans of the classic Chicago sound were also clear winners. A three-piece horn section replicated the signature style of Chicago's 'other lead voice,' with Chicago's Lee Loughnane playing trumpet. Bassist Jason Scheff, a nearly 20-year veteran of Chicago, let his jazz chops loose while holding down the rhythm section with Chicago's drummer, Tris Imboden. And for a few songs, Chicago guitarist Keith Howland lended a hand and set off some musical fireworks with guitarist Hank Linderman during a feverish "25 or 6 to 4."
The subtlety&passion material has gone over well with Lamm's fans also because they mark the return of the classic '70s Chicago sound to Lamm's work. Some fans posting to Chicago message boards on the internet have given the album the high praise of calling it "the new Chicago album," as Chicago itself has been notoriously dry as creative record makers in the past decade.
But unlike a Chicago concert these days, Lamm's performance with his Chicago-like band offered something his regular gig hasn't really provided since the 1970s - social commentary. In the early days, Chicago's concerts offered a platform to criticize the Vietnam war with "It Better End Soon" and complacency on college campuses with "Dialogue." Today, Lamm is still making relevant cultural observations today, with powerful and tuneful offerings like "Sacrificial Culture" and the sarcastic "Gimme Gimme." The latter, with its lyrics criticizing the mindset of many of those in the entertainment world of Hollywood - "gimme some award, gimme money, gimme something, gimme some place in your hall of fame, gimme gimme gold plated statues of an image I can pander to" - was a very 'punk' choice for a concert taking place in Hollywood, with the Walk of Fame just across the street. Apparently, the inspiration Lamm drew from punk for the songs he contributed to Chicago's 14th album in 1980 was no passing fancy.
Also underscoring the rarity of an occasion such as this was the decision to offer select fans the opportunity to attend the band's soundcheck. Those who purchased the more expensive "preferred" tickets gained early entrance, and also the opportunity to interact with Lamm himself. The laid back, well-behaved and mostly middle-aged Hollywood crowd politely lined up to chat with Lamm, get his autograph and maybe a photograph or two. Lamm was gracious and patient, sticking around to interact with nearly everyone who waited for him.
The show also served as a preview of the new live album Lamm has recorded, Leap Of Faith: Live In New Zealand (Blue Infinity). The album immaculately documents last year's NZ concert, while also serving as an essential primer to the music of Robert Lamm. Key solo tunes like "The Mystery of Moonlight," "Intensity" and "Watching The Time" sit alongside Chicago classics like "Beginnings" and "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," and even a rendition of the opening track from Chicago's unreleased Stone Of Sisyphus album, the edgy "All The Years" - all the while prominently featuring his three-piece horn section.
Probably the most satisfying element of the entire evening, however, was seeing and hearing Lamm and his band enjoying themselves. It clearly felt good for him to finally be playing these songs live before his fans, something he has not been able to do within the confines of Chicago. It was an evening where a heritage artist could do his own thing without completely surrendering to nostalgia, and the audience was not only fine with it, but embraced it the entire time. No wonder he sounded so sincere every time he stopped to thank the audience.