“You're having a personal moment at the keyboard and it's very intimate; what you're creating is between you and yourself,” Pankow says from a tour stop at sunny Red Rocks in Colorado. “It becomes a real piece of art when you record it by virtue of the band jumping on it and bringing it to life. But then the real miracle happens when that song is experienced by millions of people. The song may not be written about them specifically, but the message of the song is very relevant because the audience embraces it, and it becomes the soundtrack of their lives. That's when that song is truly validated."
Chicago is scheduled to return to DFW for a show at the Dos Equis Pavilion on Friday, June 24, along with co-headliner Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Leading up to the band’s current co-headlining run, Pankow has spoken about how the touring break brought on by the pandemic allowed Chicago to finally focus on the creation of a new album. The fruit of that labor is Born For This Moment, the band’s first album of all-original material in eight years.
“There’s an edge to it, a fresh approach,” Pankow says of the new material, “Chicago stepping into the 21st century. It shows that the band is still evolving musically and it’s really cool that we were able to make an album that showcased the band currently.”
Pankow compares this new “edge” to when Chicago updated their sound to match the lush, adult-contemporary styles of the 1980s with the help of producer David Foster, a move that lead to a tremendous commercial resurgence for the band. The first single from the album, “If This is Goodbye,” reflects this. The band’s trademark melodic horns, tight harmonies and romantic songwriting are present, but the lead vocalist on the song is new member Neil Donell (who handles the tenor vocals in-concert on songs mostly previously sung by Peter Cetera). He sings atop a lush, snappy instrumental that wouldn’t be entirely out of place on something like a Coldplay record or Taylor Swift’s Lover.
The hand that's possibly heaviest in Chicago’s new coat of gloss is that of producer Joe Thomas, who previously has worked with Brian Wilson, among others, and is also a former professional wrestler under the name of “Buddy Love”.
“Joe took all these tracks that were recorded in various locations and gave them a commonality to give them a sense of cohesiveness, as if the band was in the studio doing every note together,” Pankow says. “It's got all the earmarks of Chicago, but because we had all this time, we had time not only to write and to do research in terms of new approaches, but we had the ability to study and get a feel for where music is going today. So, by virtue of the luxury of time and being able to really zero in on maximizing this music, it took on a fresh face.”
While the current lineup of Chicago is anchored by the band’s founding trio: Pankow, singer/songwriter/keyboardist Robert Lamm and trumpeter Lee Loughnane, the remainder of the band has entirely turned over, member by member, within the last five years. Various shades of these lineups appear on Born For This Moment, including Donnell and renowned drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr.
Three songs on the new album are co-written by Pankow, adding to the massive list of songs he has written for the band in the past such as “Ballet For a Girl In Buchannon,” the 12-minute suite from the band’s self-titled second album that contains two of their most enduring songs, “Make Me Smile” and “Color My World.” This time around, Pankow’s three songs are ones of shifting perspective: “Firecracker” is his ode to the R&B classics of the '60s that inspired him and his bandmates; “Someone Needed Me the Most” is his take on interdependent relationships; and most important, “Man Outta Me,” Pankow’s paean to his newborn son, whom he had relatively late in life.
“My son was an infant in the crib, and one day I just happened to be looking down and he was looking up at me,” Pankow says. “It was a moment of intense love, and I was inspired by this new life, a creation of this marriage. And it hit me like a brick: Here's this new life, and I have a huge responsibility. It’s going to force me out of love, out of duty, to maximize this little guy’s chances as he goes through life. By making him equipped to deal with life, it's going to make me a bigger person. It's going to make a man out of me by making a man out of him.”
Pankow compares that moment of personal vulnerability to when he wrote another one of Chicago’s most enduring hits: “Just You ‘N’ Me.”
“My [fiancée] at the time and I had a world-ending fight,” Pankow recalls. “It was a deal breaker, it was over. ‘I never want to see you again, I'm leaving you, I hate you’ — end of story. As this fight is escalating and coming to an unpleasant conclusion, I turned my head and saw my grand piano sitting in the living room. I immediately went to the piano, turned on the tape recorder, and this song came out of me in its entirety. It had never happened before, and it's never happened since. The melody, the lyrics, the chord changes. It happened all at once. I got to the end of this song and I turned the tape machine off and I'm sitting there going, holy shit, what just happened?”
"We're musicians and entertainers. We're not revolutionaries. So, we decided, ‘Let's do what we do best and entertain people. Let's write music that's positive and uplifting.’ The world doesn't need another naysayer.” – James Pankow
Pankow says he presented the song to his fiancée, who was still fuming from the fight, and it almost instantaneously soothed the relationship.
“We forgot what we were mad about,” he says. “It washed away all of that tribulation and drama. Maybe it was the urgency that somehow allowed me to compose immediately, spontaneously, in completion.”
“Just You ‘N’ Me” became one of Chicago’s biggest hits.
One of the most fascinating things about Chicago’s development over the years is their move away from politically oriented material. Several of the band’s earliest songs explicitly address political issues of the time, such as “It Better End Soon” and “A Song For Richard and His Friends,” while others were more implicit in their social commentary such as in “Lowdown” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Three of those four songs were written by Robert Lamm, who Pankow says did the lion’s share of writing about contemporary issues.
“We were being followed around by Students for a Democratic Society and other groups who wanted to start a violent revolution; they wanted the band Chicago to be there, to bear the flag,” Pankow recalls. “We didn't want to be a part of that. We're musicians and entertainers. We're not revolutionaries. So, we decided, ‘Let's do what we do best and entertain people. Let's write music that's positive and uplifting.’ The world doesn't need another naysayer.”
Pankow still has his share of political opinions, but he keeps them more to himself, opting to be a bandleader whose job is to entertain and enlighten.
During their first decade of existence, Chicago recorded an album every year (with their first three and seventh being double LPs) while balancing a heavy touring schedule that included up to 300 dates per year.
“We worked 24 hours a day,” Pankow says, adding that “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” was written on the road. “I wrote that between hotel beds on a little electric piano. We’d write during the day, go to the gig at night, come back to the hotel and write all night. So do it while you’re young.”