A few songs into its set Wednesday night at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, the band Chicago, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary on its current tour, played “Dialogue (Part I and II).” The song, which dates from 1972, is a conversation between a questioning political activist concerned about the direction of the country and an oblivious naif who dismissively comments, “I hope the president knows what he’s into/I don’t know” and insists that “everything is fine.”
“Dialogue” was only a minor hit in its day, but it may be the most relevant song the band played during its two hours onstage. It could easily be about an exchange that took place anywhere in America this morning. The video accompaniment, however — which featured photos of a number of past presidents, civil rights marches, Vietnam protests and destruction from Hurricane Katrina — stopped short of depicting the current age of unrest.
Of course, it was decades ago that Chicago threw off the notion of being a political band, which it certainly was, in favor of becoming a hit-making machine and feel-good summer concert perennial. Nothing wrong with that.
And perhaps its current members simply don’t want to pick a side or offend part of its audience. But since the band played the song and made it one of the few numbers whose video presentation went beyond colorful shapes and the ubiquitous band logo, it felt like a pulled punch.
That said, Chicago spent the rest of the evening doing what it does best: rolling through its deep catalog of hits, especially from the ’70s and early ’80s, and delivering a powerful, dynamic performance as the horn players and guitarists roamed freely on the two-tiered stage.
“Fifty years have come and gone, and they’ve gone fast,” quipped keyboardist-vocalist Robert Lamm, one of four remaining original members of Chicago; the others are trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane, plus saxophonist Walt Parazaider, who is still in the band but no longer tours.
Other notable members include bassist-vocalist Jeff Coffey, who signed on last year and whose high tenor voice approximates that of original member Peter Cetera; saxophonist-flutist Ray Hermann, who has toured in place of Parazaider for more than a decade; guitarist Keith Howland, a band member since 1995; and keyboardist-vocalist Lou Pardini, who joined in 2009.
“Introduction” kicked things off, with its shifting tempos and moods and expansive solos by Loughnane and Howland. Lamm and Coffey traded vocals on “Questions 67 & 68” and “Dialogue” before the band turned to breezy singles such as “Wake Up Sunshine” and “Call on Me.”
“(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” was an early highlight, as it segued into the Latin-flavored instrumental “Mongonucleosis.” The multipart “Ballet for a Girl From Buchannon” was another, featuring the lovely, bucolic “West Virginia Fantasies” and “Colour My World,” perhaps the unofficial prom slow dance of the ’70s.
Pankow, whose enthusiastic playing and onstage antics make him a joy to watch, commented that “a producer suggested we take a little left turn, and we listened to him. These next two songs are the result.” Those turned out to be the saccharine yet undeniable Cetera-centric hits “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration.”
Pankow’s words sounded like a criticism, especially in light of the unpleasantness between the band and Cetera over Chicago’s 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. But they were two of the band’s biggest hits, so there was little alternative but to play them.
“I’m a Man” gave drummer Tris Imboden and percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. a chance to shine, and the show ended with favorites “Saturday in the Park” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” plus an encore of “Free” and “25 or 6 to 4.”
The Doobie Brothers’ opening set was a virtual carbon copy of its show here less than a year ago. But the group, almost as long-lived as Chicago and still boasting two original members — guitarist-vocalists Pat Simmons and Tom Johnston, plus longtime multi-instrumentalist John McFee, plus keyboardist Bill Payne of Little Feat fame — still sounds as vibrant as ever.
The 75-minute performance featured many of the band’s great hits, including “Black Water,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove” and “Listen to the Music.”