Let me start by getting the only negative out of the way quickly. The name of this band is California Transit Authority. While this really isn't a bad name it may cause some of you to chuckle when you discover the band's leader is former Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine. If he and his new group want to earn some credibility as something more than a tribute band their name isn't going to help. The reason I am making this an issue is because everything else about Full Circle, California Transit Authority's debut album, is a rock-fusion lover's fantasy come true.
While nine of the thirteen tracks are covers of Chicago songs they are not retreads of the sappy ballads that oozed from their lifeless torsos in the 80s. Chicago hasn't rocked like CTA does since the Nixon Administration.
All of the Chicago songs updated here are from the Terry Kath era. None, with the exception of "Mississippi Delta City Blues," appear on any Chicago album past V and even that song is from the same era as V. They performed it live many years before it finally appeared on Kath's last album with the band and it was featured on their 1972 Live In Japan album.
"Make Me Smile" is re-arranged into an instrumental. Guitarist Marc Bonilla's guitar lines replace the vocal making this oldie sound fresher than it has in decades. I found myself paying more attention to the arrangement because there are no vocals. Only a true Chicago aficionado will remember Robert Lamm's "Happy Cause I'm Going Home" from their third album. Here Bonilla stars again using his guitar to replace the original's flute solo. Another huge asset is vocalist Larry Braggs, the front man for Tower Of Power since 2000. With deep apologies to both Kath and Bill Champlin his huge voice has more power and soul than any Chicago vocalist, past or present, has ever possessed. He propels one of Chicago's best early songs, "South California Purples," into a real blues barn burner that almost makes you forget the original. "Colour My World" is completely rearranged into a soul ballad that starts out with some spacey electronic keyboards and guitar replacing the piano solo that segues into a perfect Braggs vocal. It ends with an up tempo Bonilla solo instead of the ballad's famous flute finale. "I'm A Man" is propelled by guests Sheila E. on timbales, Weather Report's Alex Acuna on congas, and a surprisingly unpretentious organ solo by Keith Emerson. CTA does not let the fact they are missing a horn section become a liability.
Too prove this isn't just a Chicago tribute band the disc opens with a cover of Chuck Mangione's "Something Different." There is a surprisingly effective and updated version of The Allman Brothers Band's "Dreams" with Braggs tearing it up and stealing the show. Guest lead vocalist Wes Quaves sings "Several Thousand," a song written by Philadelphian Jim Boggia that first appeared on his band's only CD, the now defunct Four Way Street's Pretzel Park. The final non-Chicago song is a Bonilla original, "Antonio's Love Jungle."
The best thing about the whole affair is that Danny Seraphine is back. It's hard to believe that he was dumped by Chicago in 1990 after twenty-three years as their original drummer, in part, because they felt he lost his chops. Devastated, Seraphine did not play after he left Chicago until he was recently coaxed to do so by his friend, Peter Fish, keyboardist for CTA. He finally pulled his drum kit out, took some lessons from jazz drummer Joe Porcaro to brush up on his skills, and found enough confidence to jump back into a world he now admits he missed.
Read another complimentary review about Seraphine's comeback on a great blog specializing in the blues and baby boomer rock on Dablog By Daslob.
You can purchase Full Circle here and you can listen to some clips on CTA's website.