Chicago came onstage at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night with horns blazing, as the rock-fusion pioneers launched into a song cycle known as “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” from their 1970 album Chicago II.
The long-running group with an unbelievable 51 years of touring behind them did something different from last year, when they teamed up with the Doobie Brothers at SPAC. This year, Chicago brought REO Speedwagon and a twist. They played a first set featuring the double-album Chicago II, followed by a second set of popular songs from throughout their career.
The first set had a theatrical element to it as Chicago recreated their complex, conceptual Chicago II album, which merges jazz and heavy rock. Psychedelic, trippy geometric patterns on a video screen were background for “Make Me Smile,” sung by keyboardist and founding member Robert Lamm. The screen flashed images of people running through a meadow during “In the Country,” written by Chicago founder Terry Kath, who died in 1978 from a gun accident.
A lengthy song cycle containing multiple instrumentals could have strained the audience’s attention, but the 11 members of Chicago are great showmen, especially the energetic and ever-youthful founding member James Pankow, who moved dynamically around the stage with his trombone, performing a kind of choreographed ballet with the large instrument.
“This album is quite special because it’s probably the template for all the music that followed,” said Pankow onstage, mentioning that band members were the era’s “millennials” when they wrote it. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is the power of music.”
The capstone of the first set was “25 or 6 to 4,” the final cut on Chicago II, a jazzy, driving tune that showcased the full power of Chicago’s horns. Lamm then paid tribute to Kath before launching the second set with “Beginnings,” a delicate tune that he sang while strumming an acoustic guitar.
Highlights from the rest of Chicago’s two-hour performance included “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?,” “Saturday in the Park,” Spencer Davis Group cover “I’m a Man,” and the ballad “You’re the Inspiration,” which Pankow said was once offered to Kenny Rogers to record, who turned it down.
In the 1970s and 80s, REO Speedwagon were known for their radio-friendly ballads. Onstage at SPAC, the five-piece band originally from Illinois played more like a scrappy Midwestern power pop band with loads of charm.
Led by the hugely engaging frontman Kevin Cronin, who looked like a New Waver with spiky white hair and white sunglasses, the group covered some of their biggest hits during a highly enjoyable set that included the charging “Don’t Let Him Go” and “Take It on the Run,” the doo-wop pop of “In Your Letter,” the power pop sheen of “Keep Pushin’” and “Tough Guys,” and massive ballads “Keep on Loving You” and “Can’t Fight this Feeling.”
“For some reason, there is a soulful connection between people from upstate New York and people from the Midwest,” said Cronin while recounting the band’s earliest appearance at SPAC, when audience members only knew the words to one of the group’s songs. His goal became to come back and have everyone in the audience know the words to all their songs,
Cronin said before leading the crowd in a giant singalong to “Take It on the Run,” one of the group’s most memorable tunes.