Chicago 26 - Live In Concert


Chicago Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck


I have spent years in the pursuit of great live albums. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. Now, admittedly, Chicago 26 already has a few things against it. First, they are one of my favorite groups, so expectations are higher. Secondly, having seen them live performing a wide variety of material makes the omissions on this album seem even more glaring. While my status as a Chicago fan certainly affects how I view this album, that doesn't change the fact that this is a very poor effort from one of the longest-touring acts in rock.

Up at the top of this review, where the name of the album lies, pick out the number please. Got it? That would be 26, indicating this is the 26th Chicago album. At roughly ten songs an album (a conservative estimate), that would imply Chicago has recorded 260 songs. We get 13 here, and the final three are new recordings. That leaves ten songs (for Chicago fans, I always count "The Ballet" as one work). Classics such as "Saturday In The Park," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," and "If You Leave Me Now" - not to mention album tracks like "Dialogue," "I'm A Man," or "South California Purples" -- are nowhere to be found. Ten tracks that run roughly an hour are nowhere near enough for a band of Chicago's caliber.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The actual performances fall between energetic and sterile. Throughout this disc, it sounds as if audience applause and cheering was added in as an afterthought. This is a concert; I want to hear clapping, singing along, any indication the crowd is alive and feeling the music. After all, live albums are supposed to capture that experience, or at least they used to. It's nice to have a clean-sounding live album, but Chicago 26 overdoes it.

Fortunately, Chicago has been touring too long for the members to turn in bad performances. As always, the horn section is the heart and soul of the band, bringing life to the tracks. "Feelin' Stronger Everyday" moves along faster than original, and it actually sounds like the boys care. "Hard To Say I'm Sorry" improves in terms of sound tremendously with the inclusion of the horn section, something that was lacking on Chicago 16. Robert Lamm and Bill Champlin perform with the panache and style that comes with the year spent in the industry.

However, it is the vocals of Jason Scheff that ruin a good deal of Chicago 26 for me. Every song he sings on the album was originally sung by Peter Cetera. Cetera left an indelible mark on these tracks; his voice is one of the unique ones in rock. Scheff's vocals come off as soft and weak on songs like, "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long." They lack punch, and he has a tendency to play around with the melody a bit. Casual fans probably won't notice the difference, but longtime Chicago fans can tell.

The three "new" tracks are decent efforts from a band that in recent years has often been unwilling to take risks. (Note: Chicago 30 is finished recording, and preliminary buzz is good, so they still might have a chance.) Count me as a sappy person, but I enjoy "Back To You." It's a strong, Chicago-style ballad. This is the type of song Scheff can pull off in his sleep, so it works. "Higher and Higher" is a curiosity. Michael McDonald, who actually was a member of Chicago's label for a while, turns in tremendous, soulful performance -- the question is, why is he there at all? Chicago has three lead vocalists, one of whom (Champlin) has proven to be excellent at handling this type of material. The harmonies on "If I Should Lose You" are excellent, again proving Chicago was always underrated in this category.

Let's see, ten songs, sterile sound, and a lousy performance from one key singer. On the other hand, we have tight performances from the band and three decent new recordings. Which side wins out here?

Rating: C-

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