50 years ago tonight

Doug Collette:

The stories behind Chicago’s vaunted appearance at Tanglewood is almost (but not quite) as fascinating as the performance itself. The original headliner for this date of the late Bill Graham’s Fillmore At Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts was purportedly Joe Cocker, but neither he nor alternate choice Jimi Hendrix was unable to make the date. Now, it’s not a given the latter’s refusal of the booking led to Chicago’s, but it is known the guitar icon admired the guitar work of the late Terry Kath, so…

Adding further mystique to this piece of rock and roll history is its ready availability via the web: even though it’s never been formally sanctioned for release by Chicago itself, perhaps due to licensing issues with the estate of the aforementioned rock impresario. Such minutiae, however, turn trivial in the context of the group’s stellar performance this July night at the summer home of the Boston Symphony: even with the band on the cusp of widespread fame, based on singles culled from their sophomore album released earlier in the year, members of their burgeoning fanbase probably couldn’t expect anything so visceral or complex.

This venue’s flat sight-lines notwithstanding, as the ninety-minutes plus show progressed, the audience inside the open-air shed, as well as those further populating the lawn, no doubt found it increasingly riveting. Before too long, virtually all the attendees knew they were watching and listening to a band that was not only firing in all cylinders but also well aware of the elevated level of its musicianship. July 21, 1970, was one of those transcendent experiences music-loving concertgoers dream of.

Spurred on by Kath (who would die in 1978 in a tragic firearms accident), Chicago was equally tight and versatile as they traversed material from their debut album, Chicago Transit Authority, as well as Chicago II. And while “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” had not yet fully catapulted the band into the mainstream, the group’s dawning realization of their combined power and its effect on the attendees only added atmosphere to the event.

Chicago ran the gamut of composition and style during the course of this comfortably warm, crystal-clear night. Near-perpetual touring since the release of their debut album the previous spring had honed the ensemble’s musicianship, without leaving it rote or mechanical, so the dynamic shifts taking place in this single extended set ran the gamut: from near fifteen minutes of “It Better End Soon” to the comparatively short but sweet “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” hard-driving horns of “25 or 6 to 4” gave way to “Free Form Piano” and only then did the septet transition smoothly into the rousing suite titled  “Ballet For A Girl In Buchanan.” including the aforementioned future hits.

The unified power in the playing had its corollary in the personal camaraderie among the band members. Taking the form of verbal acclamation of each other as well as regular rounds of delighted smiles, Chicago may have been surprising itself with the splendor of its playing here in the Berkshires, but that only heightened its infectious impact on the attendees and to a great degree helped elicit (and no doubt increase the volume of) the thunderous ovation(s) and call(s) for encore(s). Judging by the wan sound of promoter Graham’s farewell to the audience (readily available to hear on the various aforementioned internet versions, there’s little doubt everyone present was fully satiated and thoroughly drained by the time this evening concluded.

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