Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Chicago. The band, not the city. Anyone who came up in the 1970s and was musically oriented probably has an appreciation for this rock icon.

For me, as a trumpet player cum drummer out of the big band and Tijuana Brass school of music, Chicago was a veritable feast of musical textures. Imagine – a horn driven rock and roll band. Wow!

Their output from 1969 through 1977 was nothing short of extraordinary. Chicago’s first three releases [1969, 1970, 1971] were all double albums. Chicago at Carnegie Hall was a four record set. These albums were revolutionary, not only musically, buy politically, as well.

From 1972 onward, the band edged more and more toward radio-friendly pop and rock, and away from the harder-edged politically-based work previously done. Chicago V, and VI were single albums, but both had big hits and great music past the radio-played songs. 1974' Chicago VII was another double album, containing percussive Latin-based work, folk-derived songs, and jazz/funk-tinged pop. VIII, from 1975, showed the group heading more toward pop/rock sensibilities, but with outstanding musicianship and arrangement skills. The prolific nature of the three main writers, Lamm [keyboards], Kath [guitar], and Pankow [trombone and arrangements] was nothing short of astounding

My first real exposure to Chicago was their tenth album, with the chocolate bar cover. I owe it all to my friend Glenn. That was the record that included “If You Leave Me Now,” the worst song on the album and ironically the band’s first number one single. The other songs were the actual meat of the collection: “Once or Twice,” featuring Terry Kath’s sizzling vocal and the driving horns, “You Are On My Mind,” an infectious samba number with James Pankow’s rolling trombone solo [in a rock and roll song, mind you!] and Danny Seraphine’s solid Latin groove, “Skin Tight,” a half-time shuffle hot enough to scorch your skin right off with a horn solo transcendent enough to drive you crazy, and perhaps the best song on the album, Robert Lamm’s “Scrapbook,” a lyrical band biography with contemplative but fabulous horns and Kath’s wicked guitar work gluing it all together.

The band’s eleventh album featured strong work, too, with Kath’s “Mississippi Delta City Blues,” Lamm’s “Policeman,” Kath’s guitar tour-de-force, “Takin’ It On Uptown,” Lamm’s scathing campaign number, “Vote for Me,” which works well in any election cycle, and the anthemic "Take Me Back To Chicago," featuring the great Kath and Chaka Khan preach at the end. To this day, I can see my friend Glenn, listening to that song over and over, living for that moment of the keyboard surge during the bridge. Well, I guess you had to be there.

Then, in late 1977, Terry Kath, who was idolized by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, stupidly put a gun to his head in jest, and blew his brains out. Chicago lost its way, and has never been quite the same since. The band parted ways with its long-tie producer, Jimmy Guercio at the same time.

1978's Hot Streets, with a hastily-added Donnie Dacus on guitar and vocals, was a decent record, with some quality tuneage and a couple of big hits for the group. The thirteenth album was an ill-considered descent into disco, and was the first nadir of the group’s discography. Chicago XIV, produced by the great Tom Dowd, provided four very good songs, but typified a directionless effort. Instead of setting the standard, Chicago was relegated to following trends. Chicago had become irrelevant.

After jumping labels from Columbia to Warner Brothers, adding San Francisco’s Bill Champlin to the lineup, and hooking up with hot producer David Foster, Chicago appeared reinvigorated with their sixteenth effort in 1982. They had a number one single and some solid arrangements, but it was apparent that the new label wanted to push the band away from horn-driven rock and roll, and more toward power ballads sung by Peter Cetera. In other words, Cetera with his backup band. Chicago 17 (1984) was a big success, but was a typical 80s album, with boring drum machine grooves, boring power ballads, and incessantly 80s pop sensibilities. I believe that you dance with who brung ya. Chicago forgot what brung them. The public loved it; I hated it, other than the three or four songs that still had some signature Chicago horn riffs.

Chicago 18 saw the departure of Peter Cetera, who obviously decided he could hire his own back-up band. Jason Scheff, son of Elvis bass player Jerry Scheff, was recruited to sing the Cetera alto parts and play bass. The eighteenth and nineteenth albums are frankly, almost un-listenable, at least to me. The mind-numbing Humberto Gatica-style production values are just awful. These albums saw a complete lack of the organic Chicago sound. The songs basically sucked, too, with a few exceptions. This period is the second nadir of the group.

With their twenty-first album in 1991, the production was clearer, but the material was still mediocre at best. The great Danny Seraphine was abruptly replaced by former Kenny Loggins drummer Tris Imboden, who sounded nothing like Seraphine’s free-wheeling style, and nothing like his own very solid and intricate work with Loggins. Clearly, this talented drummer was being held back by the rest of the group. Boring. Amply stocked with Diane Warren power ballads, there are maybe three or four songs that are worth a listen. Apparently, the public was as bored with Chicago as I was, because Chicago Twenty-One sold about four copies. Chicago had become – again – irrelevant.

Four years passed. Chicago left its label, and produced a big band album in 1995 on Giant Records, taking swing standards and giving them the “Chicago treatment.” This record was a strong effort, taking well-known songs and making them Chicago songs. And it was a real return to the days when Chicago set musical standards. Chicago Night and Day Big Band predicted the rise of big band rock efforts by the likes of the Brian Setzer Orchestra and even Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. I heard more of the real essence of Chicago in its Night and Day covers than I had heard in years.

Unfortunately, it did not sell well, and Chicago again disappeared from the ranks of bands producing and releasing new material. They became what I had always feared: an oldies band, regurgitating their [very] old hits during the obligatory summer tour. Without new work, new songs, new growth, it was inevitable that they withered on the vine.

Then, I discovered that, in fact, Chicago had completed an album for Warner Brothers in 1994. Prospectively titled Stone of Sisyphus, Warners had rejected the album outright. Apparently, the label wanted the same old power ballads, which is not what “Stone” is. Chicago bought themselves out of their contract and shelved “Stone” indefinitely.

It turns out that Stone was available, in varying degrees of mp3 quality, on the Internet. I downloaded it and got a shock, because it was good. At points, it was great. The guys are writing about what matters to them. While the record had ballads, they are written by band member, and are actually pretty good. And the horn-driven rock and roll aspect, so long left out of the equation, is back. “Stone” is a first rate piece of work, and should have been released when made, in 1994. I’m lucky to have found decent mp3s of the songs, and have my own copy of the work.

So here it is, the Spring of 2006. Chicago’s last commercially released album of original work was fifteen years ago, in 1991. Robert Lamm’s “Subtlety and Passion” from 2003 was an excellent collection, and as close to a real Chicago album as we have seen in a decade. But it wasn’t Chicago.

Now, finally, released on March 21, is Chicago XXX. Have the guys pulled it off? Can they reinvent themselves yet again? Will XXX “take me back to Chicago,” as it were? I’ll post soon with my review of the long-awaited Chicago XXX.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

SUPPORTERS and detractors call it the "silent tort reform" movement, and it has quietly and quickly been gaining ground.

Across Washington, federal agencies that supervise everything from auto safety to medicine labeling have waged a powerful counterattack against active state prosecutors and trial lawyers. In the last three decades, the state courts and legislatures have been vital avenues for critics of Washington deregulation. Federal policy makers, having caught onto the game, are now striking back.

Using a variety of largely unheralded regulations, officials appointed by President Bush have moved in recent months to neuter the states. At the urging of industry groups, the federal agencies have inserted clauses in new rules that block trial lawyers and state attorneys general from applying both higher standards in state laws and those in state court precedents.

The efforts by the federal regulators may wind up doing more than Congress to change state tort laws.

Last month, for instance, the bedding industry persuaded the Consumer Product Safety Commission to adopt a rule over the objections of safety groups that would limit the ability of consumers to win damages under state laws for mattresses that catch fire. The move was the first instance in the agency's 33-year history of the commission's voting to limit the ability of consumers to bring cases in state courts.

Read it all. What they can't get above-board, they get below-board.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Gekko gulps. Rates unfair? Note the non-denial denial from Geico.
Not to belabor the obvious, but:
. . . a study by John Ashcroft's Justice Department found that the number of tort trials declined by nearly 80 percent between 1985 and 2003. If the number of lawsuits is rapidly shrinking, but the cost of insurance keeps getting more expensive, then how can frivolous lawsuits be the problem?

What this state [Florida] needs is insurance reform, and we needed it last year, instead of Senate Bill 3. Did you know that property casualty insurance companies increased their annual profits from $3 billion in 2002, to over $40 billion in 2004?

What is so distrssing is that through lack of attention, lack of interest, and/or lack of knowledge, the public is letting Big Insurance and its shills [including, apparently, the Bush Administration] ride roughshod over its rights. I saw the President answering questions today on TV, and he was casually candid about his agenda: limit lawsuits. Not cut insurance rates, not reduce "frivolous" litigation, but limit lawsuits.

Protect Patients Now, by limiting their rights of redress in the event of negligence. Yeah, makes sense to me.

By the way, this guy is no relation to me.