At an age when many are contemplating retirement someplace warm, Robert Lamm, one of the founding members of the rock group Chicago, is looking forward to touring Canada in the depths of winter.
“We’re already booked for three weeks of gigs in January,” said Lamm, 66, in a recent interview. “We’re calling it the long-underwear tour.”
On Tuesday night, the band will perform at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, but make no mistake this is no farewell tour.
The band was formed by a group of Chicago-area music students who called themselves The Big Thing, and then The Chicago Transit Authority, before switching to Chicago after legal threats from the city’s transit authority. After releasing their arty debut album in 1969, they went on to become one of the most commercially successful bands in rock history, with 22 gold records, five number-one albums, 21 top-ten hits, and more than 100 million records sold.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few decades, you’ve no doubt had one of their wickedly catchy melodies like “Saturday in the Park,” “You’re the Inspiration,” or “Hard Habit to Break” in your head at one point or another.
The band lost its charismatic frontman, guitarist Terry Kath, who accidentally shot himself in the head in 1978, but managed to reinvent itself, consistently cranking out hits and selling out arenas across the country. More than forty years after its debut, the band’s present incarnation, which includes founding members Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walt Parazaider, is still touring the old-fashioned way by bus in markets large and small.
“We have nine guys in the band and a tour of a dozen on four buses, so the sheer numbers dictate that (we use a bus) so that we come home with a little bit of money,” said Lamm, who had just suffered through a bone-jarring, ten-hour bus ride to get to a gig in Springfield, Mo.
According to Pollstar, a trade publication that covers the concert industry, Chicago has been doing just that, grossing $3.5 million in its first 23 shows this year, with some 60,000 tickets sold at an average of $58.64 per ticket. The band has played before an average of 2,730 fans per show, down from its peak years, but still impressive given the economy and the fact that the band has toured so extensively over the last four decades.
“The fan base seems to replenish itself from the older demographic to the younger demographic,” Lamm said. “We introduce one of the songs in the set by saying, ‘There are two groups of people who appreciate this song, one who may have been married to this song, and one who may have been conceived to this song.’”
In an era when fewer and fewer bands seem to enjoy lasting success, but many continue to pile up “Behind the Music”-worthy incidents of debauchery, Chicago has managed to stay together with no Yoko Onos and a minimum of drama.
“The trick is you have to stay alive,” Lamm said, explaining the band’s lengthy career.
“It’s too bad about Amy Winehouse. There was someone who could have evolved into something, like Janis Joplin could have. But you have to stay alive, and you have to keep working and you have to want to do it. So many young bands just want to be famous without having to work at it.”
Lamm said the band has never sounded better and fans who turn up to see them at Wolf Trap will enjoy a retrospective that encompasses Chicago’s best work. One fan at the show will also have a chance to sing a song on stage with the band, thanks to the group’s partnership with the American Cancer Society. Before each gig, the band auctions off a “Sing with Chicago” opportunity, and the proceeds go to fight breast cancer.
“We get all types,” Lamm said. “The audience loves it because most of the time they’re not very good singers.”
Not content to simply hit the links or sit on a tropical beach enjoying mai tais, the band continues to record and produce. In March, they released a salsa album of their music they produced for the NY Latin All Stars, in October they’ll release a Christmas album, and next year they’ll release a collaborative single to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of their antiwar song “Dialogue.”
Nonetheless, Lamm acknowledged that convincing radio station program managers to play the band’s newer music has been a challenge.
“What the radio stations and programmers say is, ‘We’re already playing 20 Chicago songs in rotation, so why should we play something new from you? You have your slots, be happy with them.’”
But Lamm and his cohorts play on, simply because they still enjoy what they do. And they’re not done yet. Lamm said the band plans to continue touring for five to 10 more years. When asked to speculate on the band’s legacy, Lamm demurred.
“We’d rather not be remembered just yet,” he said. “We’ve been through the whole cycle of being loved and being dis-loved or disrespected. We just want to be remembered as a significant part of that richness of music that really evolved in the ’70s. I just hope people are still listening to it.”