All Over the Map: Chicago's Robert Lamm Challenged his Band Mates to Explore New Territory and they Responded

When talking about a rock and roll band like Chicago that's closing in on a half century of performing, it's easy to assume that they've probably done it all. But in fact, they're still visiting new areas as a group.

Singer/songwriter Robert Lamm phoned us from a Canadian tour stop and shared that Chicago had recently played its first-ever show in Moscow, something which he called "a fantastic experience." Playing shows globally is something that they've prioritized in recent years, he says, as restrictions and financial hurdles have become easier to navigate.

"Eastern Europe for so many years, it was easier for the mega-tours, you know, the Lady Gagas of the moment, to play those markets. Of course, before the '80s, Eastern Europe especially was pretty much shut down. Except for, I think, bands from the U.K. who were established and bands like Abba who had the international thing. They had easier access because they were closer and it wasn't as expensive to take a whole tour there. But that's all changed and so we play everywhere now."

Lamm, a founding member of the group, says that there are many areas, including even Canada, that were neglected to "some degree" during the '80s and '90s. As someone who always spoke out for change within the lyrics of his own songs, he issued a challenge to his bandmates. 

"It really wasn't until I sort of threw down the gauntlet about 10 years ago and I just said to everybody, 'Listen, if we're not going to try to maintain a global audience, then I'm not interested in just staying in North America.' So then we started traveling quite a bit internationally and it's been great. Not only in Canada, but Europe and Asia. There's a lot of audiences there that missed us and they showed up."

Something else that's been changing in recent years is the level of productivity within the group. While Lamm had remained quite prolific as a solo artist, the output of new material from Chicago itself had slowed down considerably. Embracing the new technology that allows them to record on the road wherever they are, whether it is the back of a tour bus or inside a hotel room, they've dug in deep, writing and collaborating as a band for the first time in years.

Songs from Lamm that once might have been relegated to albums outside of the band are now once again finding their way to Chicago albums. He'll have co-writing credits for six out of the 11 tracks on Now, the band's upcoming studio album set for release on July 4. Considering that he was once one of the primary songwriters in the group, the increased volume is a welcome change for longtime fans. Lamm himself is encouraged by the contributions that came from everyone in the band.

"The fact that Lee Loughnane, who doesn't really write a lot, felt the freedom and the urge to write a song like 'America,' I think that's a really great indication. Because other than Lee and the other guys in the rhythm section, in the last 20 years, there's been a lack of interest in recording and even exploring new songs. But now that's completely changed. There's a lot of great stuff coming from within the band that will find their way not only onto a new album that we [will] release this summer, but [also] within six months, there will be another new album."

There was a time when releasing albums frequently was a regular part of the Chicago playbook.

"Really, if you consider the very early years of Chicago, we were doing an album roughly every nine months," he says. "So it's not that it is undoable; it's just that it hasn't been part of the formula for so long. We figure as long as we can and as long as there are songs and everybody has great energy, why not do it?"

Digging into his own personal writing process, Lamm chuckles and says, "I'm a slow writer just because I've never stopped." He goes as far as labeling himself "kind of a contrarian and a loner in the context of this very large group." But as he allows, his words hold a lot of influence within that group. "I guess the attitude in the band is that, 'Well, if Robert wants to do it, let's do it.'"

Once they got down to doing it, Lamm had plenty of source material. He dug back in his own archives.

"Some of the songs are ideas that never got developed," he says. "Believe me, I have painstakingly gone through all of my old sketches. I'm telling you, like boxes of cassette tapes that you can barely hear because the tape is so old, trying to see if there's anything in there that I missed. I've tossed a lot of stuff away, but I have found a couple of ideas on which to build and sort of bring into the 21st century. I continue to be curious about other styles of music and music of other contemporary cultures. A lot of that is finding its way into the new songs."

One song was a track that he started working on for his album The Bossa Project.

"I was just sort of stuck on it and right about two or three years ago when Lou [Pardini] came into the band, I started working with him," he says. "He's an amazing musician and an amazing writer. He and I put together something that I always thought of as kind of Brazilian and when we finished it, I sent it to a couple of my Brazilian friends and they said, 'That's a great tune,' but they never said, 'Oh, how Brazilian of you' or 'That's really modern bossa nova,' which is how I was thinking about it, but it's really not that. It's just where that influence started for this song. So like I say, I'm all over the map with the new songs."

Lamm recalls when the group was "young and naive and had all of this energy." When Chicago performs at Hard Rock Live, you can bet that they'll bring plenty of that energy with them.

Chicago 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 20, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $56-$110,

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