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Chicago Comes to NJ

Guitarist Keith Howland on the band’s upcoming gig at bergenPAC

Chicago band 2016

Self-described as the “rock and roll band with horns,” the legendary group Chicago is heading to bergenPAC in August as part of their 2016 Heart and Soul tour with co-headliners Earth, Wind & Fire.

Chicago’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a long time coming for a band with 25 platinum albums; 21 Top-Ten singles (11 of which reached #1); a Grammy; and multiple American Music Awards. The current lineup for the group—which has toured every year for 49 years since its founding in 1967—includes original band members Robert Lamm on keyboards/vocals, Lee Loughnane on trumpet/vocals, James Pankow on trombone, and Walt Parazaider on woodwinds, as well as Jason Scheff on bass/vocals, Tris Imboden on drums, Keith Howland on guitar/vocals, Lou Pardini on keyboards/vocals, and Walfredo Reyes, Jr. on percussion.

Guitarist Keith Howland recently called us from the somewhere on the West Coast to talk about touring, how he landed the gig back in ‘95, and what it’s like to eat on the road.

DiningOut NJ: Chicago has never missed a year of touring! For you, that’s 21 years on the road. How many months out of the year are you traveling?

Howland: I think we have 115 shows a year. When you combine that with days off and double days, I think we average about 200 days a year—so more than half the year.

When you’re off, do you want to spend as much time as you can at home in Nashville?

My wife likes to travel, and so when I’m off the road we do, if we can work it in, but it’s always good to be home.

I remember hearing an interesting way in which you auditioned for Chicago. You barged into the auditions or what?

Ha! The short version is this: At the time, I had just come off of a summer tour with Rick Springfield and I started calling everybody I knew in the industry, saying if you hear about anything, let me know. A buddy of mine, Dave Friedman, who’s now a really, really successful amp manufacturer, called me up one morning around 10 o’clock—I’d just fixed some coffee—and he said, “Chicago is down here auditioning guitar players today.” There was a sort of defining moment right there. It was, like, happening NOW. It was a closed audition, and I thought, “Eh. Turn the TV on and wait for the next opportunity.”

Then the little Anthony Robbins on my shoulder said, “Put your gear in the car and head down there! You might have a shot!” So that’s what I did. I sat in the parking lot and watched all the guys filing in, one by one. I had met Jason Scheff about six months earlier and I’d jokingly said, “Hey, if you ever need a guitar player, I’m looking for work,” not ever thinking for a second that that would be the case. So when he showed up, I jumped out of the car, and I was like, “Hey, do you remember me?” and he said, “Not really.” I asked, “Any chance I might be able to get in on this thing?” He said, “You know, let me talk to the guys—Yeah, I do kinda remember you.” He talked them into adding an extra day to their auditions. I was the only guy on that second day, and they offered me the gig five minutes after I finished playing.

Touring so much, do you find yourself eating a lot of hotel food? Is it difficult to eat the way you want?

It usually goes like this: I get up when the sun is warm, around 12–1 o’clock. I go find a Starbucks, I drink some coffee, maybe have a yogurt. I work out, go to the gig at 5 or 6 o’clock, eat the catering at the show. Before the show, they come around with menus from different restaurants for the bus afterwards, and I’ll order something from whatever it is. Last night was Thai food. Some nights it’s a steakhouse, some nights it’s pizza. Depending on what’s available, I usually try to get something relatively clean—protein and vegetables or something. But, you know, sometimes not—like when it’s a pizza.

Do you ever get to get out and actually eat in a restaurant?

Sure, when it’s a night off. For example, Rita Wilson is our opening act right now. We had a dinner with both bands the other night in San Jose. But unless it’s something like that, we keep to ourselves. We see each other enough—on the bus, on stage—but when it’s a night off, most guys go do their own thing.

Is that a lonely life?

Hmm, no, I wouldn’t say that. You enjoy your downtime, but we do like being around each other, playing with each other. You know, there are plenty of bands out there where each guy has his own tour bus. They only say “hi” to each other when they hit the stage. We have two buses. Bus #1 is the original guys and a couple others. And Bus #2 is the new contingent, which is me, Tris, Wally, and Jeff. “New” being a relative term—Tris has been here for more than 30 years!

That’s what I was going to say—you’ve been with Chicago for more than 20 years!

Exactly! But I’m still “new.” We laugh about it, but what we say about our bus is that “we are the movie” because we used to get on the tour bus and watch movies, and with the group of guys we have, we don’t even put the TV on now. All we do is sit and talk, and joke and laugh. We are the movie.

Do you find it hard to know where you are? When you wake up are you like, “Where are we today? San Jose?”

Yeah, kind of. You know, early on, I used to get the itinerary out, look at it, and be like, “Okay I’ll be in this city or that city, oh, that will be cool being there.” Now I just get on the bus and think, “How far are we going tonight? Six hours? Okay, cool.” Right now, I’m looking out the window and I see desert so I think we’re in Indio, California.

I’m sure the answer will probably be “both” (and for different reasons, obviously), but do you prefer playing in bigger stadiums or smaller, more intimate venues?

I like all of it, and I like it all to be different because then it keeps it interesting. In theaters and performing arts centers, there’s a certain, more club-like vibe to it that’s cool—even when we do the in-the-round-type gigs, with the stage that rotates. You know, a lot of guys complain about those gigs, but I think it’s cool because it’s so unique, and the band is so tight on stage, so close together. But then, you know, it’s hard to beat Madison Square Garden sold out with Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s quite an experience.

I keep hearing about this incredible finale: You gather everyone from your band and Earth, Wind & Fire—all 21 of you—to play. Is it the same set list or do you mix it up?

YouTube has the encore we did for the Greek theater back in ‘04, and it hasn’t changed. It’s an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” thing. We play “September” from Earth, Wind & Fire, the Chicago song “Free,” “Sing a Song,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Shining Star,” “25 or 6 to 4.” It’s a pretty powerful 25 minutes of music to be a part of.

Do you feel that power every night?

I’ll tell you what: It takes a lot for us to get derailed. We had a show two nights ago where there were all kinds of technical problems. Jeff Coffey’s bass was cutting in and out all night. There were some issues with our monitors. We came off stage and everybody was sort of like, “Oh, man. That was a drag. I couldn’t get into any kind of groove.” And then last night, we sort of had a “we’re gonna redeem ourselves tonight” show, and everybody came off stage going, “That was amazing!” A couple of guys in Rita Wilson’s band said their perception was that it was about the same as the night before. One thing I will say about this band is that a great night is a great night, a bad night is about 95-percent a great night. In other words, it’s all good.

Catch Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire on August 30, 8pm, at bergenPAC {30 North Van Brunt Street, Englewood; 201.227.1030}.

Interview by Judy Grover, Editor