Odd as it may seem, both Chicago and Gary "U.S." Bonds are driving hard on the comeback trail. Bonds, out of commision for almost two decades, came by way of E Street (directions provided by Bruce Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zant). Chicago, with enough gold and platinum to pave its own private road, has moved to a new location, renewed its energy lease and hit the road after a two-year absence. This weekend their trails wind though Washington. CAPTION: Picture, no captionAfter 15 albums (most of them double), Chicago reached a dead end. Mired in its once-original '70s hybrid of brassy big-band rock with jazz and classical overtones, the group seemed unable to recover from the accidental death of guitarist Terry Kath in 1979. Its last few albums were desultory, making no new contributions to the homogenous diet of AM radio that once seemed built on Chicago songs. Columbia Records actually paid the band to move on. In 1981, they only gave one concert; it was obviously time to take stock.
Longtime fans will be glad to note a new home (Full Moon Records), a new producer (David Foster), a wealth of fresh outside material, and an energetic new band member: Bill Champlin, ex-leader of the Sons of Champlin, is an established popsmith ("After the Love Is Gone" for Earth, Wind and Fire). The result is "Chicago 16," which is at least a return to dynamic form, with a few promising songs that augur well for what will undoubtedly be "Chicago 17."
The septet never did tamper much with its sound and "16" is built around familiar elements: brassy blasts, chunky rhythms, precise vocals, custom-built jazz rock that relies on squeaky-clean production. It's more than competent, less than compelling, with only one song, the Beach Boy-ish "Sonny Think Twice" standing out after several listenings. Someday, these songs may become familiar; in concert, they'll probably seem weak compared to the "Chicago Songbook."
The Bonds album benefits from being A Secret Bruce Springsteen album. The Boss, who sauce was seasoned and inspired by Bonds in the early '60s, has contributed seven new songs, three of them outstanding. The opening "Hold On" is classic '60s soul; Bruce meets Sam and Dave with Sly Stone producing and Credence Clearwater Revival backing. "Out of Work" seems harvested from the same chord patch that grew "Hungry Heart," though its hand-slapping exuberance confuses its rather downbeat socio- political subject matter. The third great Springsteen cut is "Club Soul City," a slow, smoky elegy with soul vet Chuck Jackson joining in on the vocals. And on Side Two, there's "Rendezvous," a Springsteen staple recorded for "Darkness at the Edge of Town" but never released.
Surprisingly, Bonds himself has written what may be the most joyous, unfettered cut on the album, "Turn the Music Down." Like the best soul music, it is spontaneous and chock-full of contagious rhythms, Sam and Dave and the Isleys and a fun ethic wrapped into a single tune. Bonds, a classic soul singer with unbounded energy and free delivery, sounds as brightly focused as he was 20 years ago, and the production is sufficiently heroic to suit any Springsteen fan. It's also interesting to note the cycle (inspiration-success-revival-inspiration) that connects Bonds and Springsteen in much more than song. Side One of "On the Line" in particular is a great summer record, with four songs that stand up to quickly repeated listenings. In 1982, that's found treasure. ON RECORD, ON STAGE; THE ALBUMS Chicago --"Chicago 16" (Full Moon 9 23689-1) Gary U.S. Bonds --"On the Line" (EMI America SO-17068). THE CONCERTS Chicago on Saturday and Bonds on Sunday (with the Marshall Tucker Band), both at 7:30 p.m. at the Merriweather Post Pavilion.