Legendary band Chicago to play Central PA show next week

SUNBURY — In June of 1975, the legendary rock group Chicago played a show at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Among those sitting in the sea of fans at the performance was a 10-year-old Keith Howland, who was sandwiched between his parents and getting his first live taste of Terry Kath’s fiery electric guitar playing.

Seven years later, Howland once again saw his favorite group perform live, this time at James Madison Unversity during his freshman year of college in 1982. After that show ended, he snuck around to the back of the venue where the concert was being held, hoping to catch a glimpse of the band’s members before they took off to the next city. To his surprise, the effort paid off and he was lucky enough to see Chris Pinnick — the third lead guitarist in the band’s history — smoking a cigarette in a hallway backstage.

“I remember thinking to myself that he was the luckiest guy in the world because he had the gig playing guitar for Chicago. I kid you not, that was what I thought,” said Howland. “That was about 12 years before I got the gig.”

In a few months, Howland will be coming up on his 25th year as a member of Chicago, making him the band’s longest-serving lead guitarist by a wide margin. Though he says that distinction is a badge he wears “with an asterisk,” because Kath’s greatness would have certainly allowed him to play with the group for at least that long had he not suffered an untimely death in 1978, Howland’s own prowess as a guitarist has won the favor of Chicago fans all around the world.

On Tuesday, area fans will get to see Howland’s skills up close, when Chicago takes the stage at Spyglass Ridge Winery, 105 Carroll Road.

After being founded in 1967, Chicago has toured every year since in many different configurations, playing more than 100 shows annually. Today, the group still hits the road with three original members: Robert Lamm (keyboards, vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, vocals) and James Pankow (trombone). The band’s line-up also includes Howland (guitar, vocals), Wally Reyes Jr. (drums), Lou Pardini (keyboard, vocals), Ray Herrmann (sax, flute), Neil Donell (vocals), Brett Simons (bass) and Ramon Yslas (percussion).

“We are pretty much always on the road,” Howland said. “I have never seen a more tireless working group than this band. Seriously, nobody pounds the pavement like we do.

“We still enjoy it,” he added. “Every night we give 100 percent and we are still having fun.”

Through the years, Chicago has cemented itself as one of the most important acts in the history of rock music by being Billboard’s No. 4 highest-charting American group; and being the first American rock group to chart Top 40 albums in six consecutive decades. Equally impressive, the band has sold over 100 million albums, and produced 21 Top 10 singles, 11 No. 1 singles and five consecutive No. 1 albums. In 2016, Chicago was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“I really do think that (Chicago’s longevity) is primarily based on the catalogue of songs that the band created in the late-’60s and early-’70s, and then was further catapulted by what happened in the early-’80s with the huge success of the David Foster records that were made,” said Howland. “I just think that we have the luxury of having too many hit songs to even include all of them into a show.

“There are bands that have to play their one hit twice during a show,” he added. “Chicago has the luxury of being able to say ‘we don’t need to play that.’ It is sort of a strange position to be in.”

Another reason the group has fared so well through the years, according to Howland, is that they are a band that sounds the same in person as they do on their records. That’s because Chicago has always used live studio cuts for their albums with virtually no overdubbing.

“I think the band just thrives on live performance. I mean, that is what we do best,” said Howland. “I really do feel like the audiences get that they are watching something that is somewhat of a dying art — real musicians making real music, and performing it at a high level. The way records are made nowadays, there is a lot of digital manipulation.”

Chicago is happy to be returning to PA for their show at Spyglass Ridge Winery because “Pennsylvania crowds are always great,” according to Howland.

“The whole East Coast is really, really supportive of this band,” he said. “Obviously, we have fans everywhere, but for some reason that upper-East Coast has always been super supportive.”

Pennsylvania’s admiration for Chicago is something the band’s members will not only see during their show, but will also hear about following the performance, as the group always holds a meet-and-greet session for VIP ticket holders after they leave the stage.

At times, Howland admits, the questions fans ask can get a little uncomfortable, as people often get starstruck when they come face-to-face with their musical heroes and don’t know what to say. This is something that he can completely relate to, though, since he once had a similar experience with ex-Chicago bassist Peter Cetera after spotting him backstage at a show.

“All of the guys came out and got into two rental vans to head back to the hotel, and (Cetera) got into the passenger side of one of the vans,” said Howland. “I walked up and knocked on his window and he was like, ‘Hey, man, what’s going on?’ and I said ‘How do you sing so high?’ and he goes ‘It’s just my voice, man.’ Then, he rolled the window up really quickly.

“It is funny to me now because we do meet-and-greets every night and people come up in sort of awkward states and they ask sort of awkward questions, and I get it,” he added. “Even me, being a musician, that was the best I could come up with.”

It should come as no surprise that Howland’s favorite song to play live is the band’s hit “25 or 6 to 4,” which closes out all of their performances and features an extended guitar solo. But he also gets a big kick out of playing Chicago’s cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” and opening each show with “Introduction,” which was the first song on the band’s debut album “Chicago Transit Authority.”

“(‘ Introduction’) is always fun for me,” he said. “I never thought that we would perform that song live, but it has been kind of a staple opener for the show.”

Performing so many shows each year, Howland said that at times his job can feel like Groundhog Day, especially when he is playing “Saturday in the Park” for the 100th time in the span of just a few months. However, he is always reminding himself to put forth his best effort and to give the fans the show they came to see.

“I have to remember that everybody that is at that show has spent their hard-earned money to see this one performance,” said Howland. “The people that are in the audience, that is there one shot of seeing the band. I always try to remind myself that I need to bring my A-game because that is what they paid their money to see, and we want to give them their money’s worth.”