Live At Carnegie Hall


Columbia Records, 1971

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Talk about chutzpah.

In 1971, Chicago was only three albums old - all double albums, mind you - and had definitely not yet hit its commercial stride. Nevertheless, they were able to sell out a week's worth of shows at the revered Carnegie Hall.

So how did they celebrate their achievement? They released this monstrosity, Live At Carnegie Hall (unofficially known as "Chicago 4"). This four-record set is concrete proof that Chicago is a band that is best taken in small doses; listening to this one all the way through is like drinking the entire bottle of Nyquil in one shot.

Terry Kath and crew do manage to keep a little interest available for the listener in the form of their early hits. "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" has always been a track I've kind of liked, and the live version stays pretty close to the studio track, though I could have easily lived without the free-form noodling on the keyboards. And I will admit to being a hypocrite here; Jethro Tull did the exact same thing as heard on Living In The Past - but at least that's bearable. Likewise, "Beginnings" is a track that you just can't help but like; its rhythm section and vocal harmonies sound as fresh today as they did when the song was written.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Unfortunately, this is where the praise stops, and Mr. Thelen pulls out his trusty hunting knife to carve up what's left. First of all, I'm of the opinion that a band shouldn't attempt a live album until they were firmly established as a recording band. Frankly, I don't think Chicago had reached that point just yet, never mind the fact they had some early hits in their career.

Second, this album might have been good had it been shorter and not so fucking pompous! Most listeners will see song titles like "Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon" and quickly hit the off button on their stereos. Hey, guys, how's about we drop the artsy-fartsy titles and call the goddamn songs by names we'd actually know? Once I realized the bulk of this song was made up of two hits, "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World," the piece became quite easy to listen to.

And as for shorter - c'mon, your first live album is a four-record set? How about we invest in this little thing called a razor blade, and edit the tapes down to a manageable 2-record collection? A good portion of the improv jazz could have been left on the editing room floor, and this could have served as both a live "greatest hits" and a springboard for some newer material. Christ, you guys could have saved what you edited for the box set you inevitably came out with.

Finally, some of the performances themselves are lackluster. "25 Or 6 To 4" (could someone finally tell me what the hell that's supposed to mean?), a track which was quite crunchy in the studios, is reduced to a slipshod performance here - almost as if the band is unsure what to do with the track. Other songs like "Fancy Colours" may have been bigger in the late '60s and early '70s, but nowadays they sound like an outtake from a Monkees show... just a little too happy-trippy.

In Chicago's defense, I don't think they ever really were able to nail down exactly what kind of a band they wanted to be. From the early jazz tinges to the movement towards rock to the "forgettable" time just after Kath's accidental death to the saccharine-sweet ballads, Chicago has constantly been wearing different hats, and it just seemed like they couldn't find one that fit them. (Maybe part of the blame also has to go on producer James William Guerico, who was the guiding force behind the band for the first part of their career. Maybe - I don't have proof, seeing that this album came out when I was just a baby - Guerico crafted Chicago to reflect the tunes in his head. I dunno.)

When all is said and done, when my criticisms end and the flame mail starts to trickle in, Live At Carnegie Hall is left to stand in all its overblown pompousity. For my money, let it stand there and rot, 'cause it ain't worth your three hours to plow through.

Rating: D

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© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.