With the band fresh off a Las Vegas residency at the Venetian and gearing up for a summer tour with REO Speedwagon, co-founder and keyboardist Robert Lamm chatted with Billboard about digging into the vaults for VI Decades Live, and more.
Were you surprised by what you found or did you know what you had when you started unearthing material for the box set?
Well, it's pretty crazy. Going back to the Isle of Wight, I remembered that had been recorded. But some of the other ones I wasn't so aware of. I didn't remember we had recorded anything at the JFK Center in Washington D.C.; We were one of the founding artists for that place. I wasn't aware we were recording in Australia. So, yeah, there were a lot of discoveries.
What kept some of these things from coming out at the time?
For a lot of it, especially the early stuff, we never really thought the quality was worth pursuing or releasing, so it just sat in the vaults. Every once in a while I'd go through the vaults and see those multi-track masters sitting there from wherever, but we never really thought that they sounded all that good. But they've been dusted off and somewhat improved; Lee Loughnane is kind of our archivist and the guy who oversees the mixes, and he spent a lot of time on the box set, sitting and tweaking. In certain cases as we were going through the remixes we thought they were too good; They sounded kind of fake, so we went back to try to get the original live recording and get them in shape.
When you listen to these recordings, what do you hear in those guys way back then?
I'm left with the idea that we were really serious -- maybe too serious in the beginning. (laughs) We certainly had some chops. We had some skills and we were determined as an ensemble to try new things and to try to push the envelope of how songs are written. Those are the things that I think of when I listen to these early recordings, especially.
VI Decades Live is another showcase for the late Terry Kath. You've had a few guitarists since his death, but does Chicago feel a kind of mission to keep him and his playing alive?
Well, I don't think unleashing a lot of Terry Kath on the world right now is a bad idea. We can't go back. We can't reproduce that. But we can remind people of how special he was, sure. This box set is pretty much everything that we're aware of that includes Terry Kath. In that sense it's a gift to people who are interested in great guitar playing.
It's also a chance to look at the political focus of early Chicago material. And a lot of it resonates now, which has to be interesting for you as writers and performers.
We always do "Dialogue," but lately we've been playing "It Better End Soon" which...I forgot how intense that was, and the way it's being performed now, it really gets the audience. I mean, you get a lump in your throat, and we're using visuals behind that, like we do with "Dialogue," and people are commenting on it. We're in such trouble in this country, and the world. There's so much disarray that people are just searching and longing to hear someone else say, "Yes, it's bad and it's got to get better." And that's really unfortunate. One of the kids who was murdered in Florida played trombone and loved Chicago, loved playing "25 or 6 to 4"; We didn't preach or anything; We just dedicated that night's performance to Alex Schachter and that's all you can do right now. But I really applaud all the high school students who are taking it to Washington, 'cause something's got to change. Maybe this president inadvertently is doing us a favor by being such an asshole that we're trying to do it sooner rather than later.
As you bring out these vintage live recordings Chicago is also playing the Chicago II album in its entirety. What's that been like?
Y'know, we pulled out all the old charts and just started rehearsing them, and as we were doing that some of us were thinking, "What the hell were we thinking writing stuff like this?!" (laughs) 'Cause it had nothing to do with mainstream rock in 1969 or 1970 or '71, whenever. It was somewhat daunting to learn how to play that stuff again. I remembering while we were recording it and listening back to some of (the tracks) once the album was finished, when Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears came into the control room and listened to side one and he said, "That's it! This is how you do rock with horns." He was very sweet and very complimentary.
You have a new lineup this year with a new bassist (Brett Simons), drummer (Walfredo Reyes Jr.), percussionist (Daniel de los Reyes) and even a singer up front (Neil Donnell). It's a long way from the original lineup, but does that matter?
Well, starting with the death of Terry Kath we’re no strangers to updating the lineup if you will. A lot of lip service was given to the concept that the music is more important than who's playing it in our band, and as it turned out that's apparently true. But also in a strange way the guys who are maybe a generation younger who have come to fill in are better players than we were when we started out, so I would say the level of skill has improved with each sort of injection of fresh blood. The new guys have made the band better and maybe have more energy than the standard band that was showing up in the 90s and early 2000s. I've learned an awful lot from them myself.
So can Chicago go on when none of the founding members are in it anymore?
I think there's a feeling about that among the guys who would be left who are in the band. I think there's a feeling that instead of being just Chicago it'd be like the Chicago little symphony, if you will. Players go in and players go out. So I think that's a possibility, yeah. We've played some gigs with the current Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I think that from the listeners' point of view it sounds like Blood, Sweat & Tears even though they don't recognize anybody on the stage from the first couple of albums, and it doesn't seem to matter much. I think that could be the case with (Chicago), too.