Saratoga Performing Arts Center hosts plenty of long-running acts — including classic rock dinosaurs who got their start decades ago — but it’s hard to find a group that has been together longer than Chicago.
The rock-fusion pioneers, who played at SPAC on Sunday night with former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, have toured for an unbelievable 55 years. During that time, many band members have come and gone, but three original Chicago members remain: keyboardist Robert Lamm, trumpet player Lee Loughnane and trombonist James Pankow.
From their talk onstage on Sunday, band members clearly have no intention of slowing down.
Chicago came onstage with horns blazing, as they launched into the sprawling, prog-rock-like grand opening statements of “Introduction” and “Dialogue (Part I & II),” with Pankow and Loughnane trading off on horn solos in the spotlight.
“We are so glad to be back in your beautiful place here. We’re like the energizer bunny that keeps going and going. We’re officially celebrating 55 years,” said Pankow, bending over like a hunched person feigning a crippling backache.
“Fifty-five years? Hey, we’re already booked next year,” said Lamm a few songs later, before one of the band’s best: “Make Me Smile” from 1970.
Like any 55-year career, there were hits and misses during the band’s set. Clunkers included the flower-power nostalgia of “Old Days” and the lackluster “Call on Me” and “[I’ve Been] Searchin’ So Long.”
And the band’s graphics on the backdrop video displays were universally terrible — cliched stock photo images of young couples in love and obnoxiously loud psychedelic patterns. (Someone find this platinum-selling band a new graphics designer, they have plenty of money to pay for it!)
But at their best, the 11 members of Chicago are great showmen, especially the energetic and ever-youthful founding members. Pankow and Loughnane moved dynamically around the stage with their horns, performing a kind of choreographed ballet.
Highlights from Chicago’s set included yacht-rock classic “If You Leave Me Now,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Beginnings,” “Saturday in the Park,” and Spencer Davis Group cover “I’m a Man” — with a monstrous dual drum solo by Walfredo Reyes Jr. and Ramon Yslas.
The image on the backdrop behind the stage during Brian Wilson’s set was a simple black-and-white side profile of a young, hopeful-looking Wilson — from around the time when he was penning brilliant songs like “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows.”
Anyone who has seen Wilson perform in recent years knows that the former Beach Boy — who performs separately from his old bandmate and nemesis Mike Love, who brings his version of the Beach Boys to SPAC on Aug. 18 — is minimally able to participate in the music being played around him these days.
Years of health issues have taken their toll, and the genius musician enters the stage with assistance and a walker and sits at the piano stoically for much of the night. His lack of participation has gotten much worse, it seems. Ten years ago — when he toured with the Beach Boys on their brilliant 50th anniversary reunion tour, which came to SPAC — Wilson sang some leads and spoke to the crowd.
Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” tour in 2016 that came to Tanglewood was similarly brilliant. But at SPAC on Sunday, Wilson appeared uncomfortable and didn’t address the crowd or even look at the audience, and he only added very slight vocals a couple of times. It felt sad.
But the audience was universally kind, cheering for his presence. And an 11-piece backup band, including long-time Beach Boys Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine, seemed to ramp up their energy to make up for it, and the crowd at least was treated to the wonders of Wilson’s songwriting on numbers like “Sail On, Sailor,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Good Vibrations” and “Help Me, Rhonda.”