What could have been viewed as a mid-week dip into summer oldies at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion proved much more, given the surprising vitality of the band Chicago and the still-radiant presence of Diana Ross in back-to-back, fully packed shows.
Sure, Ross came out like a bang-it-out jukebox dressed in sparkly/fluffy red on Thursday, firing off hits by her ’60s Motown group the Supremes: “My World is Empty Without You,” “Baby Love” (opening her matching red fan to flutter and smile), “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Come See About Me,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Love Child.”
All that in the half hour before the first of three costume changes — to sparkly black with matching fan, plus a yellow-shag robe. At 73, Ross looked and sounded great, in command of her burnished, bell-like voice, perfectly blended just above the three backup singers in her crack 10-piece band. And she only grew warmer and more effusive across her 80-minute set after dispensing with the Supremes stuff, grooving to “Upside Down” (even inviting two young boys from the crowd up to dance), crooning “Touch Me in the Morning” and reaching a vocal peak on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic “I Will Survive.”
“I’ve got all my life to live, I’ve got all my love to give,” Ross sang with affirmation (and without backup vocalists doubling her lines) before sharing the spotlight with each member of her band, jamming in party mode like one big happy family. Far from the role of diva.
The band Chicago performed at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion.
Hard to believe that Chicago’s celebrating its 50th anniversary on the heels of its 2016 induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame – and that singer/keyboardist Robert Lamm’s only a year younger than Ross. It’s also easy to dismiss Chicago on the grounds that only three of the nine players on stage are original members at this point. Still, when the other two are trombonist James Pankow and trumpeter Lee Loughnane, you’ve got a good slice of the sound and personality that made Chicago great. And it’s been that way for a while, with guitarist Keith Howland and power drummer Tris Imboden serving with the group since the ’90s.
The newest guy is singer/bassist Jeff Coffey, who only joined last year. But on Wednesday at the Pavilion, Coffey nailed Peter Cetera’s old vocal parts, and the whole band totally clicked, executing a two-hour set with near-perfect pacing (well, Cetera’s ’80s ballads “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration” remained treacly). Everyone in the band got to shine and knew where to shift position, managing to seem both neatly choreographed (including lots of co-vocals) and totally spontaneous.
It didn’t hurt that Chicago played the entire “Ballad for a Girl in Buchanon” suite from its 1970 second album in addition to tapping 1969’s groundbreaking debut Chicago Transit Authority for “Beginnings” (with Lamm co-strumming a 12-string acoustic), “Question 67 and 68,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “I’m a Man,” which sported a smoking (if too long) percussion duet. It’s unlikely that any fans were clamoring for songs from 2014’s Chicago XXXVI.
Another plus on Wednesday: an opening set by the Doobie Brothers, who retain original singer/guitarists Tom Johnson and Patrick Simmons as well as longtime guitarist/fiddler John McFee, Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne and ex-New Grass Revival bassist/singer John Cowan. Add ’70s hits like “Black Water,” “China Grove” and “Listen to the Music” and stir. Almost as much as Chicago and Ross (and a few weeks ago, the Moody Blues), the Doobies backed up their triumphant, crowd-baiting fingers in the air.