Late in the afternoon and into the still-sweltering early evening on Tuesday, fans of the venerable quasi-rock band Chicago made their way to PNC Music Pavilion no doubt hoping for — perhaps even fully expecting — a night that would officially mark Charlotte’s return to quote-unquote normal, from a major-concert perspective.
And as they closed in on the venue, which had gone 632 days since last hosting a musical guest, things did look and sound pretty close to how they always have in the final hour or so before a show at PNC.
Men with “I Need Tickets” signs stalked the grassy shoulders of Pavilion Boulevard looking for prey. Gravel crunched underneath tires as parking attendants organized vehicles in ways that almost seem intentionally designed to cause chaos at the end of the night. Tailgaters planted their fannies in portable chairs and ate pieces of chicken out of Bojangles boxes while sucking down cans of Miller Lite cloaked in custom-made koozies.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be an illusion: This wasn’t going to be a normal night after all.
It had nothing to do with the pandemic. In fact, I saw no signs that COVID had changed the concert-going experience Tuesday aside from a smattering of fans wearing masks and some highly visible Clorox ads that touted the fact that PNC’s seats had been disinfected with it.
No, what was unusual was the very long delay preventing fans from getting inside.
Though the gates were originally supposed to open up at 6 p.m., not one ticket-holder had been let in by 6:30. Nine minutes later, PNC Music Pavilion announced that there was “a power outage in the area” on its social media accounts, but otherwise only got that message across to the roughly 2,000 people who had gathered outside via word of mouth. In other words, lots of folks were clueless.
An hour later, the situation was mostly unchanged.
Still no electricity; still 90 degrees in the shade-less parking lot; still a young woman in a white T-Mobile polo shirt futilely trying to maintain a line just for T-Mobile customers; and still mixed messages from the various venue and Live Nation staffers roaming the crowds. (“They might cancel! But they might not! But they might! Hopefully they won’t!”)
The only thing that had changed? Now there were about 4,000 concertgoers lined up waiting to get in.
By around 8 p.m., that number peaked — and then seemed to start to fall slightly, as a few guests here and there decided to call it themselves and head back home, thereby ensuring their streak of concert-less days would remain intact. At about the same time, a Duke Energy spokesperson sent an email to WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, explaining that “a piece of equipment failed,” and that “crews are onsite rerouting power while repairs are made.”
I was lucky enough to see that email. Most of the people around me remained in the dark.
It really was getting pretty frustrating. I felt like, at that point, going on more than half an hour after the band was supposed to take the stage, the venue needed to either say, “OK, we are definitely doing this” or “Alright, we are definitely not doing this.”
After all, the math was quickly moving toward a challenging place.
Any rational person knew it was going to take a good half an hour to get the entire crowd inside the building and into their seats. I knew it was supposed to be a two-hour-plus show, in its entirety. So if they do get the power back on, I thought, the band might have to cut it short — meaning we’ll have stood around in the sun waiting to get in 17 times longer than usual, only to get an abbreviated show.
But at 8:18 p.m., the gates opened, and at 8:53 p.m., the 10 members of Chicago walked onto the stage and launched straight into the song they start every one of their shows with: the aptly named “Introduction,” off of the 1969 album “Chicago Transit Authority.”
And from the get-go, the band treated its performance like the long delay had never even happened. Literally.
It was almost a little bit bizarre that 76-year-old Chicago co-founder Robert Lamm — in his brief introductory statements — made absolutely no reference to the fact that a freak power outage had kept fans fidgeting at the gates for-seemingly-ever and had darn near killed the concert.
Then again … I let it slide. Why should he bother?, I realized. Why should he or any of the other members of the band dwell on something they can’t change, and frankly, why should they waste time bantering about delays when they can use the time to just-plain give fans the full two-set, 30-song show they came to give them?
Indeed, although the original schedule had them finishing at 10 p.m., Chicago cut no corners in their Charlotte show.
They didn’t skip any of the songs on the set list they’d stuck to in the four previous concerts they’d played since returning to the road last week, following a 15-month hiatus due to COVID. They didn’t speed up the tempo of songs, or leave out verses, or skimp on any of the showy instrumental solos that have been baked into the current show.
So we still got the extended version of 1988 smash-hit ballad “Look Away,” with Lou Pardini unhurriedly noodling on his keyboard for a full minute before hitting the familiar intro — and capping the song by putting a whole lot of melisma into the “me” in the final line of the song (“I don’t want you to see meeeeEEEEeeeeeEEEEeeeEEEeeeEEeeeeeee this wayyyyyyy”).
We also got a six-minute (yes, six-minute!) drum break in the middle of a cover of The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” that put the spotlight on drummer Wally Reyes Jr. and percussionist Ramon “Ray” Yslas, who banged out a fun, energetic duet during which they cleverly and seamlessly switched kits; then briefly shared Reyes’ kit; then switched back again, with Reyes flashing funny faces all the while.
And we got virtually note-perfect renditions of multiple Chicago classics: From early ’70s standards like Lamm’s “Saturday in the Park” to highbrow mid-’80s schmaltz like “You’re the Inspiration” — sung by by Neil Donell, who at 59 can still confidently hit high notes, and whose voice has shades of both Peter Cetera (the famed original member no longer with the band) and former Journey lead singer Steve Perry (go ahead, tell me I’m wrong about that).
If you came for the horns, there were certainly horns. This wouldn’t be the same show, wouldn’t have the same vibe at all, really, without co-founder Lee Loughnane’s boisterous trumpet, Ray Herrmann’s sexy sax- and flowery flute-playing, and exuberant trombone by Nick Lane (standing in for co-founder Jimmy Pankow, who was unable to make the show).
But perhaps the most pleasant surprise is lead guitarist Keith Howland, who is ready to jump in with a wah-wah-wicked guitar solo as a persistent reminder that this actually can be a rock band when it wants to be.
The only thing that took some of the wind out of Chicago’s sails? The size of the crowd.
Once the gates finally opened, those with lawn tickets discovered that the grass section had been closed and they were being upgraded to fixed seats under the pavilion, which happens whenever a show under-performs at the box office (and is a good indication that Chicago is probably better suited, at this stage in the game, for a venue like Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre, which has a capacity of 5,000 versus PNC’s colossal max of 19,500).
As such, Chicago re-opening PNC was nothing like, for example, Madison Square Garden returning to live music with a sold-out show by Foo Fighters.
Tuesday night’s concert was definitely a step in a direction that feels like a return to normal, though, for Charlotte — wonky power outage notwithstanding — right down to the band members offering high-fives and handshakes to fans in the front row after closing out the night with “25 or 6 to 4.”
Now, I have to admit: When I saw them doing that … I don’t know. It’s going to take some getting used to before I see that kind of interaction and think nothing of it.
But I look forward to that day, and I do feel confident that it’ll be here — soon.
2. “Questions 67 & 68”
3. “Dialogue (Part I & II)“
4. “Call On Me”
5. “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long”
7. “If You Leave Me Now” (acoustic)
8. “Wake Up Sunshine” (acoustic)
9. “Look Away” (acoustic)
10. “Make Me Smile”
11. “So Much to Say, So Much to Give”
12. “Anxiety’s Moment”
13. “West Virginia Fantasies”
14. “Colour My World”
15. “To Be Free”
16. “Now More Than Ever”
17. “Old Days”
18. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”
19. “Alive Again”
20. “Hard Habit to Break”
21. “You’re the Inspiration”
23. “I’m a Man” (The Spencer Davis Group cover) (percussion duet)
24. “Street Player”
25. “Just You ‘n’ Me”
26. “Hard to Say I’m Sorry / Get Away”
27. “Saturday in the Park”
28. “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” (abridged version – last part of the song only)
30. “25 or 6 to 4”