CD Review: California Transit Authority's Sacred Ground'

Former members of Chicago regroup and rediscover their roots

The California Transit Authority
Sacred Ground
Grit Productions, 2013

Although it is only the band’s second release, I am suggesting that the new project by the California Transit Authority be retitled CTA IV. There are reasons . . .

This fine CD recalls the spirit and musical joy of the original Chicago Transit Authority. Founding Chicago member Danny Serpahine literally packed away his drums after departing that group in 1990. Fifteen years later, L.A. guitarist Marc Bonilla convinced Seraphine to tune the heads and find his sticks. The result was some test gigs followed by a CD called Full Circle, a solid collection that showed the rejuvenated Seraphine fronting a tight band.

But while the first release by California Transit Authority played it a bit safe by using numerous familiar tunes, the new Sacred Ground CD shows a band with the confidence to record mostly new numbers. These are largely horn-driven, hard-smokin’ charts, with the occasional ballad interlude. The tunes feature plenty of guitar and keyboard interplay. Just as in days of old.

If anything, group leader Seraphine’s time away from the drum kit has made him stronger and more inventive. Bonilla clearly remains his co-leader here. He had a hand in co-writing many of the 14 tracks, provides the bulk of the horn arrangements, and plays a screaming hot guitar. Ed Roth moonlights from his solo career to provide soulful keyboards for the band, with Peter Fish included on keys for a few numbers. Veteran player Mick Mahan is heard on a melodic and funky bass throughout. Los Angeles session cats handle the tight horn arrangements, including section leader Rick Keller (tenor & flute), with Jamie Hovorka, Walt Fowler, Rob Schaer, Gary Halopoff, and Chris Tedesco (trumpets), and Nick Lane and Francisco Torres (trombones).

Various people sing on the album, but the most interesting guest vocalist is Bill Champlin. Once the namesake of San Francisco’s innovative Sons of Champlin horn band, he subsequently became a versatile member of Chicago after that group had lost both Terry Kath and Peter Cetera.

In addition to new instrumentals like “Primetime” and “In the Kitchen,” the group includes two well chosen older tunes to round out Sacred Ground. The first is Al Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” found on the Kooper-led debut album by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. The other is Serpahine’s own composition recorded with his previous group, a song called “Take Me Back to Chicago.”

The irony in the title of Seraphine’s own reworked original is not accidental. By recording this project, Danny Seraphine has in fact taken himself back to the sound and spirit of the original Chicago band. Incorporating elements from the Sons of Champlin and the original BS&T make it all the better. The California Transit Authority’s new release is the natural heir to what should have followed Chicago III. The CD is titled is Sacred Ground, but I still think of it as CTA IV.

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