Chicago’s timeless inspiration rocks on at Fred Kavli Theater

Chicago, the band (not the city) has had numerous members over the years, but if one thing is consistent, it’s that whatever iteration or lineup of musicians, it’s always top-notch artistry with a songbook nearly unmatched in the pop music world. The band played the Fred Kavli Theater at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks on Sunday (following a date in Cerritos, CA the week prior) with two acts and an intermission for two hours of songs from the 70s and 80s and included a Beatles moment. Veteran members Robert Lamm (keys, vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, vocals) and Jimmy Pankow (trombone and vocals) who have been part of Chicago for 56 years were joined by seven other musicians including saxophone player Ray Hermann, Eric Baines (bass and vocals), Tony Obrohta (guitar), Loren Gold (keys and vocals), Wally Reyes Jr. (drums), Ramon Yslas (percussion) and new lead singer Neil Donell.

The first set was a more jazz, blues-focused collection with some experimental moments perfect not only for improv from nearly all of the musicians but also a chance for them to show off their skills. Lamm sang lead while on the keys for “Dialogue” and the three horn players (Loughnane, Pankow and Herrmann) came down the stairs to the front of the stage for an instrumental with the two guitarists on their sides. Vibrant colors, flowers and rainbows and overall good vibes flooded the screen behind the musicians as lead singer Donell took the stage for an excellent vocals, coupled with others from Lamm and a total of five or six musicians singing together as the horns went to work on a lively instrumental.

Photo by Alex Kluft

Donell had some stellar head voice and falsetto moments on “Questions 67 and 68” while the horns were completely glorious and Lamm harmonized beautifully with Donell with him. The horn intro was front and center on “Call On Me” with more feel-good vocals from Donell.

Lamm took a moment to address the crowd and room, “This is one the best-sounding venues in the country. This tour is known as the North American tour. Our agents are doing the best they can to extend our tour internationally,” said Lamm. Chicago continued with one of their earlier hits, 1970’s “Wake Up Sunshine” with wonderful five-part harmony from the band. The lead vocal from Donell and the harmonies were beautiful on “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” with seven band members joining on the warm love song, and a heck of a trumpet solo from Loughnane capped off the magic as well, blended in with “Mongonucleosis” some funky instrumentation, hot horns and Latin drum elements in the mix from Reyes Jr. and Yslas.

Chicago performed a tribute to The Beatles with “Magical Mystery Tour” with more five-part harmony. Pankow preceded this by saying, “It’s shaping up to be another busy year. It’s nice to be working. We were just a bar band, we did all the hits on the radio at the time.” He also shared that on March 21 they will perform a Beatles medley on SiriusXM.

Photo by Alex Kluft

The big hit this first half was probably “If You Leave Me Now”, with all musicians’ pristine attention to the dynamics here, a delicate lead vocal yet again from Donell and the horns as incredible as ever —sounding like royalty. “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” was a lively one with Lamm singing lead wonderfully and the horns front and center for another instrumental as Baines and Obrohta rocked out on the guitars. Loughnane handled the vocal for “Colour My World” while Herrmann (who plays a number of saxophones) had a stellar moment on his flute solo. “To Be Free” had more standouts from the horns and fans were on their feet for the high energy of “Now More Than Ever.”

After a 20-minute break, Chicago offered a hits-heavy second half. Loren Gold took the lead vocals on “Alive Again” with four other harmonizing, plus an excellent guitar solo. Then the well-liked “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” was sung by Robert Lamm with a vibrant trumpet solo from Lee Loughnane.

“Old Days” brought singer Neil Donell back into the fold, with the horns joyfully echoing his inviting phrases as historical scenes and landmarks of Chicago (the city) as well as photos of the band flashed on the screen. The nostalgia-filled song was followed by “Hard Habit To Break”, introduced by Jimmy Pankow, recalling the time in 1969 when they went to Columbia Records for the first time, thinking they would record one or two albums. Little did they know their music would become the soundtrack to so many lives.

One of the whopper hits “You’re The Inspiration” was next, with Donell alternating vocals from from Baines and Obrohta while on their respective bass and guitar as well as background vocals from Gold and Lamm. The horns came in for the ballad’s instrumental and truly built up the excitement of the iconic song. Donell hit the high notes and the crowd cheered for one of the most timeless rock ballads of all time.

Lamm was front and center on guitar singing the lead on “Beginnings”, while Gold was sounding excellent on the keys and Pankow’s trombone solo was hot. It’s a tight band song and the percussionists worked overtime, complementing the wonderful four-part harmony with Lamm’s voice.

Chicago’s version of The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man” had standout rhythms, this time from Pankow and Loughnane on cowbell and hand percussions. The lively blues rock song was elevated with extended drum solos from Wally Reyes Jr. and Ramon Yslas, delivering different rhythms and tempos and the band showcasing a lot of different styles. Reyes and Yslas were solo on stage for some time, battling back and forth before changing sets completely. The audience roared after this showmanship.

Loughnane spoke for a bit, saying, “After a couple years away with the pandemic, when we got back on stage, I’m feeling the music more than I ever have.” The inspiring comment was followed by the evergreen love song “Just You ‘N’ Me” with eight of the musicians singing and a beautiful soprano saxophone solo from Ray Herrmann. Lights were up on phones and the musicians held some up to during their other massive power ballad “Hard To Say I’m Sorry”, with the three horns sounding as epic as ever like the gates had opened and Donell’s vocals completely soared.

Photo by Alex Kluft

Lamm sang lead on “Saturday In The Park” with the trumpet hitting its groove, and overall it was a satisfying rendition of one of the most perfect Chicago songs. They played the empowering “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” and the encore started with “Free” with another piercing horn section and a passionate sax solo from Herrmann. The rock guitars were in full force on another favorite “25 or 6 to 4”, with vocals from Donell that wowed, the horns smashed while surrounded by a final guitar solo from Obrohta. It most definitely sounded like a long-lost Bond theme.

Words by Michael Menachem
Images by Alex Kluft