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Now is the Time for Chicago

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Chicago’s Keith Howland talks about their latest tour, stop at Hoosier Park Casino in Indiana and album

In a time when rock music is seeing a swell in popularity and bands who thrived in the ‘70s and ‘80s continue to delight fans with their passion for creating new, vibrant, and essential music, Chicago fits comfortably into that niche. A recent Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame inductee, celebrating 50 years together as a band, and still riding the wave of a successful 2014 album release, the group has not slowed down one minute. Most recently, the band is in the midst of their Heart and Soul 3.0 tour with Earth, Wind, & Fire. They make a solo stop at the Hoosier Park Racing & Casino in Anderson, Indiana, on August 27 for a night of celebrating four decades of hits from their socially conscious ‘70s era through their love ballad ‘80s and into the 2000s with some songs from their recent release Now.

Now is the album this band has always wanted to make and the best of both worlds; a mixture of fiery jams that orbit current social philosophy (the title track and the optimistically patriotic “America”) and the romantic softer side (“Crazy Happy” and “Love Lives On”) that endears many fans to fall in love with this band over again.

“Chicago has always had a Lennon and McCartney kind of thing,” said guitarist and vocalist Keith Howland. “To me, Robert Lamm is the Lennon of Chicago and Jimmy Pankow is the Paul McCartney. Jimmy has more pop sensibilities and Robert was always a little more left of center in his lyrics. On this record we still get that as well. Lamm definitely comes out a little more eclectic and then James’ tunes like “Love Lives On” is one of the more ‘80s-style ballads.”

This is the first time in years since the band has released original material. The group recorded and shelved Stone of Sisyphus in the early ‘90s but was later released in the late 2000s (this was their 21st album recorded but 32nd released) because the record label initially rejected it. Years later Chicago XXXVI finally got the chance to be the album Chicago wanted to make for themselves.

“This is the first record the band has made probably since the ‘70s where we could make music that we wanted to make with no restrictions,” said Howland. “Let’s try to recreate Chicago VII. Let’s do a Christmas album. It was outside influences telling us you need to do this again and you need to do that again. Now is who we are as a band.”

It has been over 20 years since Howland joined up with the band. Previously, just after he moved to Los Angeles to seek his “fame and fortune, whatever that was going to be,” he began working as a guitarist for Rick Springfield. He also landed a job with Patty Smyth from Scandal, playing some gigs including a Tonight Show appearance. He then switched gears and worked with jazz saxophonist Warren Hill for a stint until around 1994 the year work he claimed had dried up—or so he thought.

“I started calling all of my friends I knew in L.A. just to put feelers out and to see if anybody knew of anything,” he said. “One of the guys I called was a buddy of mine—Dave Friedman, the guitar and amp builder. His shop was also a rehearsal studio. I get a call back at 10 in the morning telling me Chicago is auditioning guitar players that day. First thing that crossed my mind was that I was not going to be able to go down there that soon. I hung up the phone, poured a cup of coffee and thought better luck next time when I can hopefully get more lead time.

“But there was something inside me that said put your stuff in the car, drive down there and see what you can come up with.”

He made it down to the rehearsal studio to find noone there except Earl “Hank” Steiger.

“I remember asking Steiger advice about the audition. He was a big help and the funny thing about that experience is that he would soon become my guitar tech, but that is an entirely different story.”

Howland went back to his car and sat there. Soon he began watching, one by one, members of the band come in. Lee Lougnane. Walter Parazaider. James Pankow. “Holy crap, there is Robert Lamm!,” he boasts with a laugh. Jason Scheff was the last one to go into the studio. Howland met Scheff while working on an original project of his own. At first Scheff did not remember him but as they talked things came together, and it got him an audition with the band the next day.

“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?”
“You’re the Inspiration”
“Hard Habit To Break”
A song Howland could not recall.
“25 Or 6 To 4”

Those were the six songs he played. And those were the songs that got Howland a job playing in one of America’s greatest rock bands. “Coming in and having grown up listening to the band, I had both bags under my belt. I had the more organic style of the Terry Kath/’70s era, but I was also able to adapt to the ‘80s era of the band. We played through all of those tunes, and I topped both styles that day. I don’t think that went unnoticed. I was the only guy who auditioned that came in and did the ‘70s, the ‘80s and sang.”

As you can expect, they will be dominating this current tour with hit after hit after hit, and as the lights go up Saturday night, they will be ready to entertain with all of the showmanship you come to expect. “One thing that is great about this gig is that nobody expects you to play these songs just like the record. With Chicago, unless you are doing something ludacris and inappropriate for the music, have at it. That’s the spirit of the band.

“When we perform on stage, I find stuff that works for me. There are certain songs I do night after night that change and others I play note for note. But it’s still me. It’s something I worked on, and I stayed with it. The key is to have fun. I am coming more toward the side of sticking to the true essence of the song and giving the audience what they come to expect.”

As the band continues to look for ways to express themselves while maintaining the foundations they built up 50 years ago from the Chicago Transit Authority to Now, you can expect that Chicago is just getting started.

Andrew Duncan
Dug out from a pile of zines and hot sauce, Andrew Duncan has contributed to many publications through the years, including Chord and work with the ever so spunky Readyset...Aesthetic! He now resides deep within your membrane.

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