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At Carnegie Hall

Columbia 30865
Released: October 1971
Chart Peak: #3
Weeks Charted: 46
Certified Platinum: 11/21/86

William Burroughs says playing back a tape recording is "activating a past time set by precise association... a recording can be played back any number of times; you can study and analyze every pause and inflection..." which must be something like what Chicago had in mind. Carnegie Hall, a four-record set, includes every pause, every inflection from an entire week at Carnegie, plus a thick color photo book, a huge poster, two merely large posters, a list of every gig played by Chicago since 1967, and a detailed guide to voter registration requirements in all 50 states. A careful study of this information should tell you what each member of the group had for dinner last night.

If you like Chicago, but haven't bought any of their records, this one is for you. There are around five sides of favorites from their three previous albums. There are a lot of new tunes. There are roughly 20 minutes of cheering and whistling from the audience, a lot of "thank you's" from the band, two complete introductions by DJ Scott Muni, even a couple of unedited tune-ups. The music is pretty good, the band competent and tight. Still, an objective editor with a sharp pair of scissors would've helped.

Chicago's musical antecedents are somewhat obscure. Most bands with the guitar-organ-horns-rhythm instrumentation make at least a passing reference to the Stax or Memphis sound, a precise means of musical organization that assigns a certain specific function to each grouping of instruments. Most groups that claim to be jazz-oriented inject some jazz flavor into their music, either through harmonically and rhythmically adventurous horn lines or through a certain amount of interactive freedom and improvisational surprise. Chicago, for the most part, eschews both the Memphis and the jazz approach. It's no accident that they've achieved an enviable track record with their string of AM hits, because their roots seem to be firmly planted in AM radio. Except for an occasional clever twist in the arrangements, most of their songs could've been dynamite material for a Shondells or Union Gap kind of group. And their political message -- register and vote, dump Nixon, stop pollution -- isn't likely to offend anybody who listens to Drake-programmed stations.

Chicago - At Carnegie Hall
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Tunes like "Sing a Mean Tune, Kid" and "25 or 6 to 4" are perfect formula-rock, with super-catchy melodic hooks, memorable rhythmic riffs, and earnest vocals. The horn arrangements are curiously one-dimensional: lots of whole notes and dotted quarter notes, elementary harmony based on triads, a tendency toward coloration and away from motion. According to the Memphis formula, the horns should push, propel, galvanize the band. According to the big-band jazz formula, they should add depth and convey a certain power. Here, they mostly fill.

The new tunes on the album attempt to break out of this formula bag, and often succeed. The band sounds twice as fresh on these additions to the repertoire; they're as well-rehearsed as the evergreens, but there's a spirit and excitement behind them that's very evident. "Mother," for example, really gets off the ground. There's a gutzy, swooping trombone solo from James Pankow and a free-for-all involving horns and guitar that ups the energy level considerably. Another free jam occurs on "Free," and this time saxophonist Walter Parazaider steps out for a screaming solo that shows he's at least heard of Albert Ayler. It's amazing how lively the band sounds when the horns step out of their straight-jacket arrangements and play, and even if the players aren't particularly original or even technically assured (Pankow is an exception), at least they are energizing the band instead of just patching up the holes. "A Song for Richard and Friends" is perhaps the most successful of the new compositions. Guitarist Terry Kath, who plays with a great deal of fire but not much ingenuity throughout all eight sides, gets into some feedback and other freaky effects on this last bash, and the arrangement for once adds to the excitement.

Chicago obviously enjoys playing, and if slickness and success is their bag, they're welcome to it; obviously, plenty of people will listen, even to eight consecutive sides that were, to me, excruciating. I do think it's criminal for Columbia and producer James William Guercio to foster their pretentious tendencies. A hard-nosed producer willing to pare their obvious talents down to a single LP of tightly edited, sharply honed material is needed if theiy want to be taken seriously by people who have some familiarity with musical tradition, from Count Basie to the Mar-Keys to Coltrane, Coleman and Ayler.

- Bob Palmer, Rolling Stone, 1-6-72.

Bonus Reviews!

Chicago took a calculated risk with its latest release -- an exhaustive documentation of the group's Carnegie Hall performance last year. I can't think of any other pop artist (or group) who has had -- or even would have -- the sheer audacity to issue a box set of four (count 'em, four!) discs in a single package. But here it is, here they are. As of this writing, the whole works is very nearly at the top of the best-selling charts. The gamble paid off.

There's no question that the issue is an attractive one. Indeed, in addition to the discs, are an enormous (6 x 4 feet) poster of the band in action, two other merely large posters (one of them of Carnegie Hall), a twenty-page photo album, and a list of voter's registration requirements (for eighteen-year-olds) in the various United States. As for the music, it is made up of the highlights of Chicago's April 1971 concerts in New York's Carnegie Hall.

Unlike many of its prominent competitors, Chicago keeps getting better and better. The band has retained a sense of joy in the act of making music that is obviously communicated to its audiences -- most certainly to the ecstatic listeners who attended the Carnegie programs. Energy is the force that brings rock music to life. Many groups have matched Chicago's success, but in failing to measure up to their music's continuing demand for an inexhaustible supply of simple, raw vitality they can only fall back into parodies of themselves.

Chicago, on the other hand, even in a program such as this one which concentrates on familiar repertoire (it's really a "greatest hits" album), invests tunes they must have played at least a thousand times with the wonder of fresh discovery. Sure, they can be rhythmically dull, and they can even make an emotional cheap shot now and then. But most of the time this band plays good and clean and honest rock music -- no hype, no nonsense, no overreaching. A four-record set is a lot to ask anyone to buy, but this one's worth every penny of the tab.

- Don Heckman, Stereo Review, 3/72.

One critic, in reviewing this four-record live set by Chicago, recommended sides two and five. Now think about that for a minute. We're not going to be that selective. What we will say is that anyone who appreciates Chicago will revel in this box of goodies. Virtually all of their most familiar material is included -- "Questions 67 and 68," "Make Me Smile," "25 Or 6 To 4," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" -- but they were to be expected. More surprising is the fine quality of sound which runs throughout. There is nary an off note either -- probably because the tracks were selected from among a full week's worth of music during the band's engagement at Carnegie Hall. A nice feeling of closeness pervades the proceedings. We can hear asides from members of the group, in addition, of course, to comments from the audience. Nothing like informality -- and that's really what this is all about. After several highly polished and successful records, Chicago just lets their hair down and plays for the people. And that's what time it really is.

- Ed Kelleher, Circus, 2/72.

This was recorded during the group's week long series of concerts at New York's famed hall (the Fillmore of the classical buffs). First the music: a lot of familiar items are included naturally and they get the benefit of audience enthusiasm underlining them. New material gets an initial tryout, still in the cross pollination (rock and brass) groove that seems to give Chicago its wide range. The hydra-headed free form emerges in the piano introduction to "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?," that could point the way the group might travel in their jazz feeling. The packaging: for a start there are four disks, all done at a special low price, a picture booklet, a poster and a huge poster, plus a voter registration chart to appeal to the 18-year-olds and over. Visually it's all very nice, but there could have been more detail, more actual words, about the seven-piece group. All in all though, one of the more impressive releases of the year.

- Hit Parader, 4/72.

Since all three of Chicago's studio albums were double sets, it doesn't really come as much of a surprise that their live album is proportionately larger: eight sides of introductions, between-song raps, tuning up and, oh yes, music, a little less than three hours all told. But unless you're a real Chicago freak, this mammoth package will come off disappointing, musically speaking.

For one thing, there is only one new tune among the whole bunch of what could accurately be termed "Chicago's greatest hits." "A Song For Richard And His Friends" is quite interesting and bodes well for the band's next studio effort; structurally, it's a bit more complex and Chicago performs it with noticeably more spirit than they do some of the older songs.

Of course, the inclusion of previously recorded material wouldn't be so redundant if Chicago's stage act wasn't what it is. They are not a jam band like the Allmans or the Dead and although they do improvise on occasion, it's very tightly controlled. Nor is soloing either widespread nor, when it does occur, very extended. Chicago's forte is ensemble playing in which each instrument and/or voice does his individual part within the whole. Such a format, consequently, doesn't make for really distinct variation from the studio cuts, so a piece with real potential for experimentation, like trombonist Jim Pankow's "Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon," fares no better and no worse than the original.

Chicago is a good band though because they have three excellent lead vocalists, each member is proficient on his instrument, and they have first-rate material to work with. When they loosen up a bit, the results are free-swinging, free-blowing rock and roll and for that reason "Mother" is one of the most enjoyable cuts of the set. "Flight 602," also from the third LP, benefits from live performance in losing the too-sweet harmonies that marred the original.

If you don't have any Chicago whatsoever, then this monster (with posters and booklets and other neat stuff) is a good place to start. If, on the other hand, you're a Chicago fanatic, you'll want it just because it's theirs or because your copies of their other records are scratchy from being played so much. For myself, I hope these LPs mark the end of the band's first evolutionary stage.

- Doug Colette, Hit Parader, 9/72.

I'm not claiming actually to have listened to this four-record set -- you think I'm a nut? -- but the event is too overwhelming to ignore altogether, and Chicago is a C- group if I ever heard one. Anyway, the packaging offers textual support for my opinion. The shrink-wrap is so loose that many Christmas gift recipients are going to suspect their girlfriends of buying review copies. And the lack of paper sleeves inside the cardboard sleeves inside the big box means that the only way to avoid scratching these plastic documents is to put the whole shebang out on the coffee table and never touch it again. C-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Carnegie Hall may be prestigious, but it has never been a good rock venue, and Chicago seems intimidated on this four-LP (three-CD) set, recreating material from its first three albums. Completists should note the inclusion of the anti-Nixon "A Song For Richard And His Friends," not previously available. *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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