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24 Feb 2010

Chicago in Seoul – It was a couple weeks back that I was watching television and saw an advertisement for a Chicago concert in Seoul. This surprised me for two reasons: 1) Chicago is still playing concerts and 2) they decided to come to Korea. I was a big fan of Chicago when I was younger, as was my brother Brian. In fact, between the two of us, we had every Chicago album up to that point (and there were a lot of them) on cassette tape. But that was over twenty years ago. If you had told me that Chicago would be playing Seoul, Korea, over twenty years later, I might not have believed you. And I definitely wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me I would be going to see them there.

“It’s hard to describe the concert experience without resorting to superlatives or over-the-top metaphors.”

I hadn’t really planned on going to see Chicago play, but when I told Hyunjin about it she suggested that we go. I thought about it for a bit and realized that the original band members had to be getting pretty old by now, and I might never have a chance to see them perform again. So we bought tickets in middling seats (not down on the floor, but not nosebleeds either) and marked the date on our calendar.

That date was yesterday, and we left a little early so we would have time to walk around the park and go eat dinner. I suppose it was a bad time to be driving—it took an hour to make the fifteen-kilometer drive (the drive home, on the other hand, despite being a route that was 50% longer distance-wise, took us only a half hour). But we got there with plenty of time to spare and spent some time walking around the park. It’s been ages since I’ve been there, and I had forgotten how huge it is. After a meandering walk around the park and looking at some of the historical sites (the park sits atop the site of a Baekje earthwork fortress), we had a leisurely dinner of pork ribs at a well-known restaurant nearby. When we got back to the stadium, people were beginning to file in, so we got our tickets (we had bought them online and just needed to pick them up) and headed inside.

Once inside I saw a lot of people our age or older, and a number of other foreigners as well. But as we were looking at some CDs for sale, I spotted a younger girl waiting in a line nearby. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Then she looked up at me, and I saw a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. She walked over, and when she addressed me as “Professor La Shure,” I realized that she must have been a student at the GSIT. It turns out she was a graduate of the school, although she hadn’t taken any of my classes (“They all filled up so quickly!” she said). I said that I was kind of surprised to see her at a Chicago concert, and she replied, “Well, I didn’t really want to come, but my parents made me.” Dear reader, never have I felt as old as I felt in that moment.

Fortunately I was able to retreat without the aid of a cane and save some measure of face, and we made it to our seats without too much ado. As I mentioned above, they were middling seats, but I don’t think there were too many bad seats in the house. There were some really good seats right in front of the stage, but these were occupied by a die-hard fan club that spent the entire night jumping up and down. Other than that, though, I’m not sure it mattered too much where in the stadium you were, as long as you weren’t too far to the side. Our seats were a little left of center, and we had an unobstructed view of everyone on stage.

The concert was supposed to start at eight o’clock, but at around five minutes after eight they made an announcement to the effect that people were having a hard time finding parking spaces and so the concert would be starting fifteen minutes late. Hyunjin and I spent the remaining time complaining about people who would arrive at a concert at the last minute and make the rest of us wait for them. But eventually even the latecomers made it to their seats and the show began.

It’s a lot easier to write about the events leading up to the concert than it is to write about the concert itself, but I’ll give it my best shot. The play list was a good mix of old and new, starting off with some of their older stuff and sprinkling in some of their popular 80s hits here and there to change things up. Hyunjin had spent a good deal of time listening to their greatest hits album from ’82-’89, so she was quite happy whenever they played one of those songs, but she recognized some of the older songs as well. For my part, I was happy to hear the 80s songs being sung live, but I was surprised to discover that the older songs stirred me a lot more. It makes sense now that I think about it, of course. The only Chicago albums I have on CD are the greatest hits album and their subsequent album 21 (from which they played no songs at all), and I listen to the greatest hits album in particular every now and then. But I haven’t heard some of those 60s and 70s songs since I was young.

So while it was great to hear Jason Scheff singing some of the familiar ballads (though he doesn’t quite do “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” like Peter Cetera), when Robert Lamm started singing “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” I was no longer in Seoul in 2010. I was transported to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far way. If you’ve ever seen the Pixar film Ratatouille (if you haven’t, major spoiler ahead!), there’s a scene at the end where Anton Ego takes a bite of the title dish. There is a whooshing sound and the restaurant disappears and Anton is a boy again, sitting in a sunny kitchen as his mother prepares the same dish for him. Food can do that to you. Music can do that to you as well, and in that moment I was whisked back to a much simpler time in my life when I probably didn’t even understand the lyrics to that song, but I knew that I liked the rhythm and the brass and Robert Lamm’s warm, mellifluous vocals drizzled over the top like honey.

I loved the whole show, but the old stuff was really the highlight for me. “Saturday in the Park” was another Lamm hit that had me singing along. I was hoping to hear “Another Rainy Day in New York City,” because that has always been one of my favorite Chicago songs, but I guess you can’t have everything. I was definitely happy with what I did get, though.

And then, of course, there was the music itself. Chicago has always been about the brass—big, bold, and taking no prisoners—and that aspect of their music really shone in the concert. Not only did we get the sound live and visceral, but we got to see the physical performances as well. I can say without equivocation that I have never seen anyone wield a trombone like Jimmy Pankow. The man brandished that thing like a Stinger missile launcher, and he roamed back and forth across the stage pumping that slide with incredible vigor. The other instrumentalists were all excellent as well, of course, but Pankow sticks out in my mind, next to Lamm.

To top it all off, they really let loose with their instrumentals, so much so that at times it felt like we were all sitting in on a jam session—which was fine by me and, judging by the amount of cheering and applause, everybody else, too. There was even a “dueling drums” section with drums versus percussion that got my heart pounding.

It’s hard to describe the concert experience without resorting to superlatives or over-the-top metaphors. I guess all I can say was that it was great and both Hyunjin and I loved it. We both agreed that not only are they all consummate musicians, but they really know how to do a live performance. And here’s the kicker: Jimmy Pankow, the man who wielded that trombone up and down the stage, is 62 years old. Robert Lamm is 65. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. They’re at retirement age, and they are still rocking out with their, um, socks out (this is a family show, after all).

As we neared the two-hour mark, it became clear that it was time to start wrapping things up. The band had already made one faux exit, returning after much (deserved) applause and foot-stomping to play a few more songs. But then they bowed and started vacating the stage again, and Hyunjin said, “Well, I guess it’s over.” And I said, “No, it can’t be over! They haven’t played ‘25 or 6 to 4’ yet!” I knew they had to play it, and I figured they would save it to close out the show, because it’s a great song to end a concert with. Sure enough, the band came out one last time, and those familiar guitar riffs rang out through the stadium. Then the brass kicked in, and it was everything I have always loved about Chicago. We both stood up, and I started singing along: “Waiting for the break of day...” I spent the whole song with my hands above my head, pretending I was a kid again listening to my cassette tapes on a hot summer day.

Hey, if these guys can still rock like that at their age, I can afford to act like a kid at a concert, right?

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