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Making Audience Smile--Eventually

Pop Music Review

April 02, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the eight members of Chicago stepped on stage Tuesday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and started playing their 1970 hit "Make Me Smile," the volume caused some people in the audience (half of which seemed to be over 50) to cover their ears in shock.

A few hurried to find some tissue with which to create impromptu earplugs. Nobody even attempted to move their bodies to the rhythm of the music.

Confronted with a crowd that seemed lifted out of "Night of the Living Dead," the venerable band seemed virulently out of place, and even a little foolish during the first half of the 90-minute show.

By the end of the evening, however, Chicago had the whole theater on its feet, dancing and roaring approvingly as the hits kept succeeding one another.

It was an unexpected metamorphosis, a testament to the fact that Chicago's longevity is no coincidence.

Although the band's music has been criticized as antiseptic, anybody willing to toss away the Book of Rock 'n' Roll Trends will find it hard to resist infectious, polished pop nuggets such as "Saturday in the Park" and "Colour My World."

The key to Chicago's appeal is the way its tight three-piece horn section enriches melodies with texture and intensity. And the band has always had a knack for ending songs in surprising ways, introducing unexpected variations on the verse-chorus-verse rock-song formula.

Thus, a song such as "Beginnings," performed at the end of the show with surprising soulfulness by original keyboardist Robert Lamm, stands proudly next to anything written by Paul McCartney or Burt Bacharach.

Like the work of those two giants, Chicago's earliest material has the ability to make you feel nostalgia for a time or a place you might not know anything about.

The group's later hits, such as 1976's "If You Leave Me Now," represent the epitome of the fluffy, creamy '70s pop song, drowned in melodramatic strings, its syrupy lyrics performed with utmost sincerity. Kitschy, yes, but wonderfully cinematic.

Chicago still records, though it is doubtful the band has anything significant left to offer the world of contemporary pop.

Still, its vintage combination of hummable big-band jazz-rock and down-to-earth pop is as wholesomely American as apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top.

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