Live staging of American art-rockers’ magnum opus and expansion of their creative scope capture transient moments and then some.
In their fifteen years of existence, the Chicago team became favorites with crowds, and the ratio of the quintet’s studio to live releases should be qualified as small – unlike their ambitions. Half of this double album is a report of the ensemble’s concert at Zoetermeer’s “Boerderij Cultuurpodium” in October 2019, played the night before "Screens" had seen the light of day. Performed in full and preserved version on the set’s first disc, their vaguely concept record sounds perhaps more vigorous here, only the stage often works as a microscope, so while the musicianship doesn’t show any blemish – especially when the collective go off on a tangent to what they originally laid down – the songs’ weaknesses and other foibles are magnified on such a document. Most of the pieces feel heavier when delivered in front of the audience and, packaged together, the tracks on offer lack the variety of a not-so-fresh band’s regular act might display, although nobody could deny the boldness of proggers’ giving their fans a previously unheard work in its entirety.
Still, opener “Forest Fire” has a strong fusion undercurrent alongside ebbing riffs now, letting Leslie Hunt’s voice build cinematic tension and the instrumentalists to shape a nuanced thunder, and the finale “Ghost Girl” gets expanded to immensely deepen the artists’ emotions but, whereas the sonic siege of “Sea I Provide” demonstrates dynamic dexterity, the likes of “Trigger” rumble rather listlessly for the most part, the troupe’s effort notwithstanding. They somewhat fail in constructing impressive harmonic picture on “Bread & Yarn” – except in vocal department which will find guitarist Jim Tashjian join in polyphony – until Andrew Lawrence’s ivories insert baroque-tinctured passages into the flow, yet there’s a lot of flair in “A Lottery” and a few other older numbers the Illinoisniks revisited at a different time to present on the second disc of this album.
Touching on each of their earlier platters, up to 2010’s debut whence the histrionic “Termites” come, the quintet apply a mighty groove to “Snow Country” and make their short take on “Jealous Guy” quite vibrant; however, the collective’s covers of their predecessors’ classics – spanning a good portion of CD2 – both reveal the group’s roots and bare the melodic issues of the band’s own cuts. It’s great to hear them do a brief attack on CURVED AIR‘s “Presto Vivace” and expertly delve into a couple of then still-to-be-recorded Bill Bruford’s compositions, but their reading of ZEPPELIN’s “Out On The Tiles” isn’t filled with proper swagger and their digging of GENESIS’ “Back In N.Y.C” or “Long Distance Runaround” from a tribute to YES are too by-numbers to push the right buttons. Yet there are fiercely reproduced CRIMSON’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” voiced by John Wetton who guest-fronted the Chicagoans on their first concert record and the brilliant “Walking On Sunshine” from KATRINA AND THE WAVES’ repertoire to emphasize the breadth of the ensemble’s abilities.
And there’s also “Divided We Fall”: a raucous race towards future unity – laid down in quarantine and exposing its raw, albeit attractive, surface. If they stick to these message and method, the band’s post-pandemic career must outshine their past ambitions.