Chicago Transit Authority @ Fillmore West 08.17.1969 (Late Show)
Chicago begins with "Introduction," the pile-driving Terry Kath composition that opened their debut album. Not surprisingly, this song features powerhouse guitar playing from Kath and this raw, highly energetic blues-oriented number fuses elements of blues, jazz, and rock into a style uniquely their own.
Tight, perfectly executed renditions of Lamm's "Listen" and a new Kath composition, "The Road", follow. By this point, the band is fully fired up and they dive into an incendiary performance of the Spencer Davis Group hit, "I'm A Man." The only cover song featured on their debut album, this features all three lead singers (Lamm, Kath, and Cetera) taking a turn on the vocals and Kath absolutely blazing on guitar. Although Chicago's version of this song features lyrics as they misunderstood them, rather than the actual words Jimmy Miller and Stevie Winwood originally wrote, their version of the song blows away the fine original, particularly from an instrumental standpoint. It's no wonder that their arrangement, minus the percussion interlude within, became yet another hit for the band.
The set continues with "South California Purples", another pile-driving guitar tour de force for Kath that utilizes long in and out fades of the horn section, sailing over a bluesy bottom created by the tight rhythm section of Cetera and Seraphine. "Beginnings," a near perfect blend of pop and jazz, with a gradually emerging Latin beat comes next. This features an infectious lead vocal by Lamm, plenty of seventh chords and outstanding solos from Pankow on trombone and Loughnane on trumpet. It's no wonder that this song became yet another belated hit the following year.
Rapidly reaching the end of time constraints, the band acknowledges the staff at the Fillmore West by thanking them for their hospitality and informs the audience they have time for one more song. They close the run with the highly adventurous Pankow composition, "Liberation." Originally recorded live in the studio with no overdubs during the first album sessions, this magnum opus version is even longer and much more exciting. Taken in context of the times, this is quite experimental and covers a lot of territory. It begins in a style reflective of the Stax/Volt era, with punchy horn charts and a get-up-and-dance feel to it. Within a minute or two, it soars off into a powerful jam with Terry Kath absolutely blazing. The musicians are performing at an incredible level here. For the rest of this 17-minute blowout, Kath doesn't let up for a second and the band propels him into the stratosphere. This seriously heavy jam gradually increases in tempo and eventually gets so intense that it explodes into a wall of feedback-laden dissonance, not unlike the spontaneous feedback compositions that closed many a Grateful Dead show during this era. But even out of this wall of noise, they keep going. Following the breather they took during Kath's guitar pyrotechnics, the horns join back in. They approach the situation harmolodicly (a musical theory developed by the legendary Ornette Coleman) and the band ventures into free-jazz territory. This eventually morphs into a lovely little sequence where Kath sings "God Bless You and Goodnight" before they begin an eloquent transition back into the opening theme. The tape stock literally runs out on the final note, capturing all but the final few seconds of this monumentally exciting performance.
Chicago was certainly a product of the times. Their early music was often message oriented and political, but the experimental nature of their approach and the great diversity among their early material made them different. Although it may seem hard to believe in light of where they ended up going in the decades to follow, they were actually groundbreaking in 1969 and even the word "revolutionary" applied at the time.
Few debut albums of the era contained original music of such a consistently high caliber and the fact that theirs was a double album stands as a testament to their undeniable creativity. These Fillmore West sets make it perfectly clear that their early success was no result of studio enhancements or gimmicks. This was a live band that was more than capable of backing up the promise of that debut album onstage.