Posted April 2020
The coronavirus has affected every aspect of human life as we know it. It has especially impacted the entertainment industry as performances of all but the streaming kind have been canceled or postponed.
Such was the case with the group, Chicago. Originally slated to perform in Nashville and Chattanooga this month, I interviewed the band’s long-time guitar wiz, Keith Howland. Though those shows have been pushed out until December, the chat is still a good one to share with you now.
I reached Keith at his hotel room in Las Vegas where he and the band were performing during a residency at the Venetian. We started off by talking about what led to Keith getting his role in Chicago that he has held for over 25 years. Did he expect it to last this long?
“No, absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I remember when I got the gig, I remember thinking to myself, you know, the guys were into their 50s and the band had been around for 30 years or something along those lines. And I thought, well, you know if I get five years out of this thing, that would be great. It just kept going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny. We don't stop and we haven't taken a year off. We're actually probably doing more tour dates now than we were when I first joined the group.”
What does Howland attribute that to?
“I think I would attribute it to a couple of things. Some of the guys, when I joined the band, had younger kids, so maybe they didn't want to be out on the road. The kids are now grown and out of the house and, so they're more inclined to want to stay out on the road and just keep working. I just think that, also, as we keep moving forward, I think they're just as much - I don't know what the word is, but they're just feeling grateful and blessed that so many people want to come see us at this stage of the career. So, we're still putting out new music and we continue to tour and people keep coming to see us and we're having fun. So, I think that's probably the key element, is everybody's having a good time. It's real.
“But I think it's a testament to that - when you really look at the bands that are out there just continually doing good business and staying out there. The Doobie Brothers, and Earth, Wind and Fire, and us and Pat Benatar and Foreigner. We're all sort of a certain era that seems that transcends the generations. We see three generations coming to our concerts. There's the grandparents that were there from the beginning and the parents that came in the 80s, maybe. And then the kids are being dragged there by their parents and their grandparents and they enjoy it, too.”
In another interview, Keith was quoted as saying, 'Music is not just my job. Music is my hobby and who I am and what I am.’ I asked him to elaborate on that.
“Well, I mean, you know, growing up in a musical household, only in the sense that my parents weren't really musicians. My mother was in the church choir and she played piano. My father used to joke all the time that he played the radio. That was his instrument. But my older brother was playing drums when he was seven or eight and I was four years younger. So, for as long as I can remember, there was instruments and music being played in our household. At age seven, myself, I picked up the guitar and then, of course, my brother and I started jamming in my parent’s rec room. We put records on and we would just play to them and turn the lights off. We bought a couple of Christmas spotlights and put them on us and pretended like we were playing a concert or whatever. We used to do that actually to the Santana ‘Moonflower’ album a lot. I wound up learning all four sides of that record note for note. I could play right along with Carlos. Chicago was a big prevalent band in our house as well.
“I think the first time we saw them live was in '75 in Washington, D.C., so that was the original lineup. I got to see Terry Kath. It was kind of a life-changing moment for me because I was kind of a - I was kind of more of a rock guy. I was getting into Kiss and Ted Nugent. And, then, there was Van Halen. But the Chicago influence kind of pulled me in - and my brother actually pulled me in - the direction of a little bit more harmonically sophisticated music. My brother was listening to Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Crusaders and Weather Report. So, whether I liked it or not, I was hearing a lot of that music from him. We each had our own bedroom with our own stereos and one was louder than the next. I might turn Double Live Gonzo off and go next door and listen to my brother listening to Weather Report. It was expanding my harmonic palette.
“But yeah, I mean, it's all I've ever known. And the irony of it is, is that I went to college and I got a degree in communication arts and I played in three different bands when I was in college and not once did I think to myself, 'I want to be a professional musician'. Not once. I was twenty-two or twenty-three years old when my buddy, Lance, (he was my college roommate who was a bass player in all the bands I played in) and I decided, 'You know what? What are we gonna do? Let's go to L.A. and see if we can do something with this music thing, you know?' Up to that point, it was a hobby and I just thought it was going to continue to be a hobby and I was gonna get a job at a TV station or something in communications. Lo and behold, we wound up in L.A. and he wound up playing with Don Henley, I wound up playing with Chicago. It all worked out, I guess.
“I was going to say the odds of two stupid kids from Virginia loading up a Ryder truck, driving to Los Angeles and winding up both doing pretty well for themselves is pretty unlikely. But we were stupid enough and optimistic enough that we just went for it.”
Because Keith mentioned being in church and his mom being a pianist, I asked if he was a fan of Phil Keaggy when he was a teen.
“Yeah. Phil Keaggy, I touched on him, and, more recently, I've listened to more of his stuff. The guy is absolutely amazing. Absolutely amazing. I wish I would have gotten to him sooner; he would have been more of an influence on me.”
I asked Howland what are the biggest changes he’s seen both in the band and in the music industry since he’s been in both of them for such a long time.
“Well, I mean, the changes in the band, that's a pretty obvious one. Any band that's lasted for 53 years, there's going to be personnel changes. When I joined the band, there were eight guys - the four originals, which was Robert, Jimmy, Lee, and Walt. And then there was Bill Champlin and then Jason Scheff and Tris Imboden, and then me. At this point in the group, it's Robert, Jimmy, Lee, and then me, if you're talking seniority. Because Bill and Jason and Walt - Walt is still a member of the group, but he doesn't really tour anymore due to health reasons. But, Bill and Trist, and Jason are gone. So, I've slid up the ranks to the highest tenured non-original member.
“But you know what? The band is sort of much like Foreigner. This band doesn't hire slouch musicians. So, you know, I've gotten to play with several different lineups in my 25 years and all of them have been great. So, that's kind of where change happens. But that’s like you say, that's with any band that's been around for this long. That's going to happen, I feel. We have the two principle songwriters in the band still on stage in Jimmy and Robert. Obviously, Robert is the iconic voice of a lot of the early hits of the group. S
“The music industry, on the other hand - you know, the way that you get music to the masses is completely different these days. When I joined the group, you still went into a studio, made a record, and hoped that a record company would get behind it and you'd get a song on the radio. Now, it's all digital downloads and streaming and you're really making records to tour behind them. Like you said, you went and saw a different band, but you heard Phil Keaggy and you went out and you bought his records. When I was a kid, I would go see the band that I wanted to see and there would be an opening act and usually, the opening act was somebody I'd never heard of. Like Bryan Adams or the Dixie Dregs. I saw so many bands that became huge. Billy Squier. Had no idea who Billy Squier was. He opened for Rush, I think. And I went straight out and bought his record went straight out and bought Bryan Adams’ record. That doesn't really happen so much anymore. Usually, if you're on tour with another band, it's a well-known band. There's not a lot of bands sort of toting unknown talent out with them. You got to build that - which this is not so much unlike old school in that now, bands do have to build an audience in a grassroots fashion by going out, playing club dates, wherever they can be heard, which is what this band did back in the day. So, some things have changed and some are the same. You got to get out there and play to the people in order to get them to know who you are.
I asked Keith if he were made music czar, what would he do to change it, if anything, he replied:
“Well, I do think that there is a little too much expectation of consumers now that recorded music should be free. People grouse about having to pay 99 cents to download a song. You can't even get a cup of Starbucks coffee for 99 cents. But, yet, the consumer thinks that they should be able to get it for free. And they do with Spotify. Apple Music. Most everything that's released, you go right on YouTube. It's immediately up there for free. So, yeah. I mean, the idea of making music as a recording artist is somewhat limited today. And I think that that's probably the thing that needs to be addressed. That's also part of the reason why you see everybody is on the road because that's the only place to make money anymore.
What can fans expect on this tour?
“Well, we're calling this tour 'Chicago and Their Greatest Hits'. So that pretty much says it all right there. You're going to get about two hours and 20 minutes of nothing but hit songs. There may be one or two deep cuts thrown in there, but they're probably familiar deep cuts. It's a two-set show with a 20-minute intermission. So, pack a picnic basket. It's a long night of music.
“But, yeah, I know we're rolling right along here. We’ve finished our rehearsals here in Las Vegas. In 'rehearsals', I mean, the shows that we're playing. We have been off for about, gosh, almost for months so our first gig out was kind of like, 'Do we remember this stuff?' We did.
What does the Chicago guitarist hope his legacy is and how he’ll be remembered?
“Boy, that's a tough question. I mean, I'd hope that people would remember me as somebody who sort of helped to perpetuate the legacy of a great Hall of Fame rock and roll band, just by sheer commitment and longevity. And I hope people remember me as a good guy and a good, good father. That's kind of all you can hope for."
Follow the latest with Keith and Chicago at Chicagotheband.com.