SARATOGA SPRINGS — “We’re doing a lengthy show because we’ve had a lengthy career,” Robert Lamm said at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
So have openers the Doobie Brothers: Both bands juke-boxed decades of hits Tuesday before a happy, boomer crowd.
Chicago was best when tightest, swinging tricky rhythms and precision horn arrangements. The Doobies charmed most when loosest, in that graceful guitar-Harley chug that beckons toward the open road.
Great songs stay great; not all classic-rockers do, needing replacements as original members leave. Both bands played ably Tuesday; vocally, the Doobie Brothers arguably echoed their hits more faithfully than Chicago.
Original Doobies singers Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons remain; they lack only their 1980s soulman Michael McDonald, and Simmons simulated McDonald’s R&B growl well in “Takin’ It to the Streets” on Tuesday.
Chicago gave new bassist Jeff Coffey the high parts Peter Cetera then Jason Scheff or Bill Champlin once sang; eager, energetic Coffey lacked Cetera’s romantic depth or Champlin’s elasticity.
To their credit, the Doobies reached past radio rockers “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “Black Water,” “China Grove” and “Listen to the Music” — these excited the crowd and deserved to.
They also surprised with deep cuts “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” “Spirit,” as a country breakdown, while “Eyes of Silver” rode a relaxed jam feel that “Clear as the Driven Snow” took far further, swapping easy rustic charm for zippy explorations that echoed the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One” in its complex beats, like a dragon joining a picnic.
Johnson pumped up the energy with bluesy guitar and beefy voice, Simmons and guitarist-fiddler John McFee generally in support along with bassist-singer John Cowan, occasional riff-visits from sax-man Marc Russo and fills and breaks from under-used pianist Bill Payne.
Chicago came on hot with the hopscotch syncopation of “Introduction,” longtime keyboardist Lamm singing lead. Coffey crooned the romantic torment of “Questions 67 & 68” and shared vocals with keyboardist Lou Pardini in “Dialogue,” its troubled idealism underlined by political video. They kept the energy and crowd up easily for two hours, wrapping with “Saturday in the Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” and encores of “Free” and “25 or 6 to 4.” Couples slow-danced in the ballads, starting with “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,” in a set that mixed tempos and moods well and gave full commitment even to cheesy ’80s ballads “Hard Habit to Break” and “If You Leave Me Now.”
Keith Howland (guitar) scrambled and swaggered through his solos, but Chicago hit hardest when the horns, led by trombonist-arranger Jimmy Pankow in non-stop motion, locked together. Songs surged and stretched; soaring in “Make Me Smile” early and “Saturday in the Park” late, but a too-long drums/percussion break in “I’m A Man” dissipated somewhat the energy from the preceding “Beginnings,” maybe the most upbeat tune Tuesday.
Precise playing on heads-up arrangements was impeccable, and they sounded most “old-Chicago” when Lamm sang.