Chicago still going strong
CHAMPAIGN — When you think about the band Chicago and its brassy music, you're hearing James Pankow's horn arrangements, the band's signature sound.
The band is coming Tuesday to the University of Illinois Assembly Hall, where it will play hits as well as holiday songs from "Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three" and earlier Christmas songs.
Pankow was "a little jet-lagged and discombooberated after getting back from three weeks in Asia — Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong."
But he said the band would be fresh for a brief holiday tour stateside and that he looked forward to the UI concert "because it's a great party school."
He is one of four original band members, "horns guys plus (keyboardist) Robert Lamm.
"We've had the same lineup for 20 years; we're highly polished and just slamming. We'll play all the hits note for note, on steroids," Pankow said.
A 45-year veteran of the band, Pankow has composed many of Chicago's hits, including "Make Me Smile," "Colour My World," "Just You 'N' Me," "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long," "Old Days," "Alive Again" and (with vocalist Peter Cetera) "Feelin' Stronger Every Day."
Cetera left the band long ago; Lamm and the others now handle the vocals.
Pankow said the band likes its new ways, with downloads sold on chicagotheband.com rather than the familiar records, because "now we don't have the suits telling us what to do."
At the height of Cetera's ascendancy and afterward, producers downplayed the horn section in favor of synthesizers and studio tricks.
"We basically played our first album ('Chicago Transit Authority') live, and that's what we're doing now," Pankow said. "We're writing new songs, because if all you do is the old hits, you stagnate."
The band started in the Chicago area in 1967 as The Big Thing, playing Motown songs, which necessitated a horn section.
"We were The Big Thing everywhere but Rockford, where we were The Big Sound because they must have thought it sounded phallic," Pankow said.
He laughed at the band's origins.
"We wore suits, did our own steps in kind of a half-baked Vegas show, sometimes with go-go girls," he said. "It was surreal. But we got to play Wilson Pickett, James Brown, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and there was lots of horn."
The clubs didn't take to Chicago's newly written songs, so the band moved to California "because that's where the music biz was" and rented a house in Hollywood to come up with a batch of originals. They also took on a new manager, James William Guercio, who crafted the band's image.
But the industry has changed, and Pankow said he enjoys having a multiplatform digital presence, selling songs and DVDs on the band's website, along with providing updates.
He said the band keeps it fresh by following the wisdom of Joe DiMaggio.
Joltin' Joe was constantly asked how he kept up his enthusiasm (and hitting) after years of stardom, and he said he did it for some kid in the crowd who'd never seen him play before, Pankow said.
If you go
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: University of Illinois Assembly Hall
Tickets: $55, $45, $39 or $32 (student discount available); available at the Assembly Hall box office, online at http://www.uofiassemblyhall.com or by phone at 866-ILLINI-1