As a fan of the music of Chicago the band, particularly their earlier outings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, early in my fandom days I had always wondered how they sounded on stage at that early age. Having read that they were a great improvisational/jamming unit, I had been genuinely curious. However in the early 2000s in Indonesia, finding out how the early Chicago sounded was nigh impossible. The internet only offered snippets of their performances, compressed in the lowest bit-rate possible to accommodate streaming through a dial-up connection. The band’s lavishly packaged Chicago Live at the Carnegie Hall was never officially released in Indonesia, and finding a copy was quite a tall order. I actually did locate a copy, but the exorbitant price was too much for a high school graduate who was penniless while waiting for the good news of enrollment at a public university.
A year prior, I had acquired a (pirated) copy of the concert film Chicago… and the Band Played on… It was an okay and somewhat exciting performance (despite the absence of founding member and trumpeter Lee Loughnane), but at the time of the performance in 1992, the original rhythm section left only Robert Lamm on keyboards. How fierce could Terry’s guitar playing be on stage early in his career? How did Peter Cetera’s voice hold up on stage at this point? Did Danny Seraphine get all his chops together on stage? These were the questions that popped up in my genuine curiosity.
Enter Chicago at Toronto Rock Festival 1969. Upon listening for the first time, it was clear that it was a bootleg-quality recording, although it might have only been a poor recording of what was happening at the soundboard. The quality of the sound was only marginally better than the streamed snippets online, but of course the cassette won out because it was the whole set that the band played at the festival which, many years later, I found to be actually named Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, at which Chicago shared the stage with, among others, John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band whose performance was released as Live Peace in Toronto and was perhaps the most popular among other releases by other artists from the same stage.
Despite the sub-par recording quality, the album did quench my thirst of early Chicago live performances. Years later, I found that the performance was released by many other questionably named labels using various titles, such as Chicago in Concert, Chicago Live ’69, Chicago Beginnings, and the latest was perhaps Chicago Best Alive. You can listen to the entire set on YouTube, as several users have already uploaded it under various titles. The cleanest sound so far can be listened to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGrni-S3NRA (no copyright infringement intended).
The track listing varies widely, but at that point Chicago would open any set with “Introduction.” But on most of these releases, “Introduction” is nowhere to be found. It was often mislabeled as “Beginnings” and the actual “Beginnings” song (the encore of the set) is sometimes not included in cassette and LP releases due to time constraint. The Beginnings and Best Alive (both originally released on CD) have the distinction of listing two “Beginnings”: one is the actual “Beginnings” and the other is “Introduction.” Some releases list “Introduction” as simply “The Intro Song.” Some songs have been mislabeled as well: “South California Purples” is usually listed as “The Purple Song” and “Questions 67&68″‘s numbers are sometimes missing. What a confusion!
Back to the set, the band started out song with “Introduction” and the Toronto version of “Introduction” was my first time listening to the full version the song. It was mind-blowing and life-changing. The band had so much energy on stage back then and Terry Kath was such a driving force. His voice soared and his solos ripped through at the midsection of the song. The song has many movements (an early Chicago quality that I learned upon listening to this live set) and the band transitioned smoothly from one movement to the next. Peter Cetera was clearly an unsung and underrated bass hero; his busy bass lines accompanied the songs, particularly “Introduction”, perfectly. The horn section’s set of lungs (Hendrix was right all along!) was nothing short of awesome, but they were recorded a bit thin here; this clearly was also the problem with recording horn instruments perfectly on stage at that time. Even in official releases such as At the Carnegie Hall and the recently released Live in ’75, the horn was hardly ever entirely justifiably represented.
Other highlights of the set include “25 or 6 to 4”, which at that point had not yet been released and “Liberation.” The highlight of “25 or 6 to 4” is certainly the solo, and Terry was famous (and infamous) of coming up with a different improvised solo every time the band performed the song on stage. The solo in this version does not sound as heroic as the final recorded version, but its melodic approach in this version showcases Terry’s improvisational prowess. I also dare say that I actually like the Toronto version of “Liberation” better than the album version. In this 16-minute jam track, Terry sounds more emotionally involved in his lengthy solo and the moment he finally burst into an improvised line to address the audience as the jam is over is truly a precious rock concert moment.
Chicago’s 1969 Toronto performance was the first widely available unofficial live album of the band. It is nowhere near as lavish as the Carnegie Hall set, but for financially challenged fans of the band (myself included) it certainly is more affordable. In recent years, live recordings of the band on stage early in their career have popped up on YouTube and in streaming sites such as Wolfgang’s Vault, and the Live in Tanglewood video is increasingly becoming the moving image of the band in their early days (Watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_oAoSZ2y1cw if you haven’t. The audio and video have been remastered to an excellent quality. I teared up when I first watched the video; it was that moving and beautiful). There is basically no reason to own their 1969 Toronto set now, except if you are an avid and devoted fan, but it really is worth it to stream on YouTube or any other streaming sites if what you are looking for is the band expressing their raw power early in their career, trying to make a good impression and win new fans in a neighboring country.