When the COVID-19 lockdown slammed the brakes on the entire live music industry, like every other touring act, the members of Chicago were forced to head back to their individual homes and wait out the pandemic storm.
For founding member Robert Lamm, this meant beelining to Southern California with Joy Kopko, his wife of 30 years, where the couple sequestered for months. It was both a shock to the system and a welcome respite for Lamm, who has been recording and touring with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group ever since he launched it back in 1967 along with Peter Cetera, Terry Kath, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Walter Parazaider and Danny Seraphine. For the self-described loner, this metaphysical pause button allowed him to delve deeper into his creative side.
“For me, I knew it was going to be a long time — I just didn’t know how long,” Lamm recalled ahead of Chicagos performance Saturday night at Wind Creek Event Center. “Lately in my life, I haven’t really had time to plan anything, so I just sat down in my little studio at the piano and started playing. I started pulling out ideas that I had stockpiled over the years and exploring that music. I began thinking about how I always wanted to write with this guy or that guy. I just started calling old friends and, in some cases, new friends. I began collaborating using file sharing. That kind of really became my everyday thing. It was so much fun and such an old process of sitting down and finding out what is there—what is it that I have to say? Lyrically, especially, I found out I was getting deeper and deeper in terms of things I wanted to say and do things I wanted to express, but I just hadn’t had time to explore that before. It was really a wonderful thing for me.”
One of the collaborations Lamm struck was with Jim Peterik, a founding member of fellow horn-driven band The Ides of March and later of Survivor. Despite only having met Peterik at a show a couple of years ago, Lamm quickly bonded with his new writing partner. (“His work method and my work method really blended together.”)
Before long, the Lamm/Peterik partnership caught the ear of BMG producer Joe Thomas (Brian Wilson/Dave Matthews Band), who insisted Lamm’s new songs could be the basis for a new label deal for the band, a notion that surprised the 78-year-old musician.
“[Joe] asked me if I thought Chicago might want to record some of these songs and I said I could only ask as it wasn’t really my plan. It turned out to be the plan,” Lamm said, noting the album turned into the group’s recently released “Born For This Moment.” “We thought we were done and that there wasn’t any record company interested in late-career Chicago. But they [BMG] were very interested after they heard the songs.”
The new album retains Chicago’s signature sound, with the horn section adding the band’s signature flowing tones to ballads like “If This Is Goodbye,” “Make A Man Outta Me” and the title song, as well as the spunky “Firecraker,” the grooving “She’s Right” and the punchy “If This Isn’t Love.”
As an act known for its relentless road schedule, not having missed one year of touring since the beginning, Lamm said the band had work to do to get back up to speed in order to resume the busy tour schedule that had always typified life in the band. There was also the challenge of incorporating newer material in with Chicago classics.
“We just kind of talked briefly and we’re going to start with where we left off,” Lamm said. “There are probably a few little adjustments we intended to make anyway in terms of the song lineup, who sings what and where they’re going to stand when they sing it. [Playing new songs] is always a tricky thing. We’re a legacy band, so we have to really take care of our fans when we do this. I know when I go to a show, I want to hear the songs that I’m familiar with of the artist whose concert I’m attending. I don’t particularly want to hear a lot of stuff I’m not familiar with.”
One of the biggest changes in the band is Parazaider’s absence due to an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis he received in April of 2021. Parazaider’s health issues had prevented him from touring with the group prior to the pandemic. Lamm found out about the Alzheimer’s diagnosis shortly after it was announced.
“Walt’s wife texted us and I had an exchange with him,” Lamm said. “It was not too long after it was discovered and he was already under treatment and therapy. We’re hoping for the best. We’re sort of at the age when we’re really noticing that certain people are not around anymore. It’s the passage of time and life.”
In terms of Chicago’s longevity via a career that found the band selling more than 100 million records worldwide while amassing 47 gold and platinum records and 70 charting songs, Lamm feels some of it can be traced to a delicate balance of pleasing both the players and the fans.
“The context of having a long career and a large repertoire is actually a constant discussion of ‘What can we get away with leaving out where we can bring something in that’s really fun to play?” he said. “(2019) was where we went and did a full, top-to-bottom version of ‘Chicago II’ live. We’re skilled enough to do that and interested enough in asking ourselves, ‘What the hell were we doing with the second album?’ ‘Why were we writing like that and why did people like it?’ ‘But I guess they did, so let’s do it again.’”
This latest juncture in Lamm’s career extends beyond his work with Chicago. During his downtime, the Brooklyn native did songwriting woodshedding by taking deep dives into the catalogs of composers ranging from Neil Young to Burt Bacharach and exploring myriad soundtracks from Hollywood’s Golden Age. These efforts have yielded fruit in the shape of a potential solo effort on BMG that may get released in the next year or so.
“As I was inundating Joe Thomas with these songs, he said after this (Chicago) album comes out he’d produce my solo album for BMG,” Lamm said. “I asked him if he was sure that BMG would want it and he said, ‘Believe me, they’re going to want it.’”
Dave Gil de Rubio is a freelance writer.
Where: Wind Creek Event Center
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: ticketmaster.com, $65, $85 and $110
https://www.mcall.com/2023/11/08/covid-isolation-chicago-robert-lamm/ COVID isolation inspires Chicago front man Robert Lamm