Review: Who is Ready for 16 Hours of Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall?

At Carnegie Hall Complete
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Show of hands; how many weren’t satisfied with the existing 4 ¾ hours of highlights from Chicago’s April 1971 week of shows? Who was holding their breath until all eight performances would be available in their entirety, cased in a lavish, super deluxe 16 disc box?

It’s a rhetorical question, but it’s hard to imagine there was a groundswell of fans clambering for this expansive, and expensive, reissue. But it’s here, in all its glory, to celebrate the 50th anniversary. Clocking in at nearly 16 hours of newly remastered music with a 28-page book of notes/memorabilia, reproductions of the three posters from the original album, and boasting a list price of nearly $180, needless to say, this is for the Chicago superfan with deep pockets and plenty of spare time.

The week-long collection of gigs at the titular venue supported Chicago 3, the group’s third double vinyl release since its striking debut in 1969. That provided plenty of material to choose from, and during the course of those seven days, virtually all of the songs from those albums ended up being played.

Obviously there is A LOT of duplication. Those who love “25 or 6 to 4” will be thrilled to hear six iterations of it spread out through the shows, usually as the closing song. Chicago didn’t have many big radio hits then, but “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” was one of them, so that gets rolled out at all eight concerts. Since Robert Lamm’s free-form acoustic piano intro to it, which goes on longer than the actual tune, changes considerably each time, the repetition is at least interesting in that respect. Rack up another six instances of the “It Better End Soon” suite, all five movements running totaling about 16 minutes. 

Guitarist Terry Kath might have been at the height of his substantial powers during these gigs, which makes four versions of his showcase “South Carolina Purples” all worth hearing, specifically for how he constructs his extended wah-wah solo. The nearly 19-minute take on the fifth concert is the longest and arguably best. But as with most of these selections, your mileage may vary. Oddly, Chicago’s explosive cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” typically a concert staple, only appears once (sixth show) but is a highlight of the run.

The six-piece soon morphed into writing shorter, tighter, more commercial tunes, but at this time there was plenty of experimentation and inventiveness to their jazz/rock/blues hybrid. That makes for worthwhile compare and contrast listening for the longer, more improvisationally dynamic selections.    

The sound of the initial recordings was rightly criticized as being thin, something partially rectified when the set hit CD in its 2007 four platter, revamped, and lengthened incarnation. The audio has been revisited and upgraded once again for this third and likely final go-round, and it is improved.

Whether those who already have that earlier box need to spring for this larger one, at over twice the price, is up to each individual and their level of commitment in this historic batch of shows at the legendary NYC hall. To paraphrase an old New York Times marketing slogan, you may not need it all but it’s nice to know it’s all there.   


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