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Published: Friday, 6/20/2003

Chicago just a ballad band? Baloney!

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Most fans couldn't name the musicians in Chicago, but they immediately recognize the group's script logo and, most importantly, its songs, said trumpeter Lee Loughnane.

“Not to discount or belittle anyone in the band, but I think the music is more important than any of the individuals,” Loughnane said in an interview this week from Boston.

Chicago's lengthy list of hits guarantees that it cannot fit every fan's favorite into its concerts, including tomorrow night's show in the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater.

“It's amazing how strongly the audience feels about these songs,” said Loughnane, one of the original members of the band that was formed in 1967. “We've had over 50 hits and it's a yearly problem - what to put in and what to leave out.”

Among the near-mandatory selections are ballads such as “You're the Inspiration,” “Hard To Say I'm Sorry,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Baby What a Big Surprise,” and “Colour My World.”

But even though Chicago has had phenomenal radio success with slow, melodic songs, Loughnane and company love to crank it up several notches and churn out some high-powered, horn-driven rock and roll.

“We get blamed for continually putting out ballads, but if you look at every band, they put ballads on every one of their records,” Loughnane said. “We have uptempo songs on every one of our records, too. But after `If You Leave Me Now' became a hit [in 1976], radio stations decided that `this is what Chicago sounds like.'”

Being pigeonholed by the radio industry is particularly frustrating for a band that is adept at a broad range of musical styles, from James Brown-inspired funk to big band jazz to guitar-thrashing hard rock.

“We've been told that our musicianship can be a problem,” Loughnane said, because the band is too serious about its art to settle for formulaic radio hits.

That same level of musicianship has helped the band members retain their enthusiasm for hits they've played umpteen million times - with no end in sight.

The current lineup features Loughnane and original members Walt Parazaider on saxophone, James Pankow on trombone, and Robert Lamm on keyboards. The rest of the band - Keith Howland on guitar; Bill Champlin on keyboards and guitar, Jason Scheff on bass, and Tris Imboden on drums - have been with Chicago for between eight and 13 years.

Researchers at the International Trumpet Guild Journal have documented that the group's horn trio is the longest-running horn section in modern music history. But Loughnane said he and Parazaider and Pankow actually were performing together before they started the group (initially known as the Big Thing) when they were studying music at DePaul University.

Over the last two years, Loughnane, 56, has had the chance to look at the big picture of Chicago's 36-year career as he helped oversee the compilation of a five-disc box set on the Rhino label, set for release July 15, including a remastered DVD video of a 1972 concert.

“There are 90-plus songs that cover a cross section of everything we did,” he said. I'm very satisfied with the length and breadth of our career.”

Chicago opens the 2003 Toledo Zoo Amphitheater concert season at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $28.75 and $33.75 from Ticketmaster and at the door. Information: 419-385-5721 or www.toledozoo.org.



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