For some musicians, being on the road can be quite an adventure. However, for percussionist/drummer extraordinaire Walfredo “Wally” Reyes, Jr., it is a great adventure. Wally is the percussionist for Hall of Fame and epic band, Chicago, and he has been in that role since 2012. Prior to joining Chicago, Wally–who comes from a musically gifted family–had worked and performed with many great artists including Santana, Jackson Browne, Steve Winwood, and Lindsey Buckingham, just to name a few. This Cuban born native has a unique talent in fusing drums and percussion such that they become one. He has mastered both crafts and he can move back and forth freely between drums and percussion as good as any drummer/percussionist that I have ever seen.
So, I decided to find out just what kind of adventure Wally was having as he came through Atlantic City on tour with Chicago on one Friday night in late October. (On this night Chicago is on tour and performing with Earth, Wind & Fire). For this show Chicago was at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, an upscale casino in the City by the Sea. Wally and I start by clearing certain guarded corridors.
Wally’s workday starts with locating his trap case. Each band member’s case is labeled and it is set out for them to provide some measure of creature comfort. As Wally tells me, his case is basically his personal “office.”
In his “office” Wally proceeds to pull out anything that might be relevant to his job including plenty of drumsticks. Wally’s office also has an interesting wardrobe collection.
After we gather show items, Wally and I then take the long walk along the back of the arena past the vast arsenal of equipment that the Chicago/Earth, Wind & Fire tour brings. It is massive and frankly, staggering, particularly when you think that these cases and equipment just got here and they will be moved right after tonight’s show. Indeed, on your way to the stage you cannot help but notice the vast amounts of cables, wires, and electronics that make this tour tick.
What’s next is time to take the stage ahead of tonight’s performance to check things out in preparation for the show. As it turns out, this is Wally’s public office where he performs his magic; it is the real deal.
The great size and depth of the Chicago/EWF stage becomes instantly apparent when you reach the top of the stairs and look down at centerstage which is indeed some ways away. However, there’s no time for sightseeing today, Wally is ready to get to work.
Editor’s Note: As we approach the stage it suddenly hits me. One cannot help but feel the presence of something unusually special that will take place here in just a few hours. After all, this is a stage that will be occupied by two epics bands; Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Indeed, there are some daunting parallels between these two groups that makes being on this stage even more riveting. Consider these facts. Both bands originated from the wonderful City of Chicago and they both were formed within years of one another; 1967 for Chicago and 1971 for EWF. Furthermore, both groups have sold in excess of 100 million records and that’s (yes it’s real) 200+ million records between the two bands. These two groups performing together is almost like visiting a living and breathing museum of history; yet it’s in the present, not the past. Also, consider that next year Chicago will celebrate its–get this–50th anniversary as a band. If one considers how they have maintained that kind of longevity while marrying it with the success that they have had, the band Chicago is truly a musical marvel.
In any event, the next stop is Wally’s on stage office. Tonight he is high above the audience and standing just to the left of Tris Imboden’s beautiful drum kit if you are looking out from the stage. (Tris is Chicago’s longest standing drummer and he is also a master craftsman of his own. His resume is legendary). To imagine the talent that Chicago has corralled between Tris Imboden and Wally, who stand mere feet from one another while performing, is mind boggling. Both are marquee performers with storied backgrounds and yet in Chicago, they gel as one. (To prove my point check out their dual solo in I’m A Man). The history and accolades between these two men, who are also close friends, is most impressive.
With the precision of a pilot checking his instruments pre-flight, Wally scopes out his setting ensuring that everything is in place. Set lists, sticks, and endless microphones are checked. Included in Wally’s pre-show inspection and preparation is some warm-up and soundchecking.
Witnessing Wally’s impromptu warmup with recognizable musical rhythms and patterns from such classics as the provocative and riveting I’m A Man to the extremely subtle Color My World is on par with playing catch with Derek Jeter in Yankee Stadium. Wally’s technique and mastery of his craft is apparent from sitting out in the audience however, from a few feet away you can feel the talent besides hearing it. And as good as this is I look down below to centerstage and to my right and realize that in a mere few hours Wally will be joined by other master musicians the likes of which we may never see again. At this time, that staggering figure of 100 million plus records sold still resonates in my head. Anyway, no time to ponder, let’s move on.
Indeed, Wally has a great vantage point for the show.
I also could not help but notice as Wally and I spoke that all around us was this immense and impressive light show going on. Images and shapes and patterns would appear on the massive screens behind us. Wally was most accommodating in showing me this state of the art technology.
I have to say, there is nothing better than seeing a man who enjoys his work while also having fun with it.
We next depart the stage area and head back to Wally’s dressing room to talk about tonight’s show and Wally’s experiences in Chicago. As we walk through the concourse Wally brings me into the underbelly of the backstage area where the preparation and planning of the show is anything but an afterthought. The behind the scenes tour reveals a community that is determined to bringing the highest quality of performance possible to the band’s legion of fans. Suffice it to say, they think of everything….everything. As we walk various recognizable faces also begin to pour in. Band co-founder and master trumpeter Lee Loughnane walks by and he pauses to chat with Wally for a moment. I try to stay focused on the conversation yet my mind returns to that infamous trumpet intro in Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Yeah, that’s him.
As we continue to walk and talk EWF begins to arrive for soundcheck. In the next few moments Wally will stop and chat with EWF original member Ralph Johnson while the two trade thoughts on tonight’s show. (Ralph is an extremely engaging and pleasant personality himself). Next to walk in is the ever recognizable (and phenomenally talented bassist) Verdine White. (Query; does Verdine ever age?). We are now nearing 5:00 p.m. and realizing that show time is about 3 hours away the intensity and focus is beginning to ramp up a bit.
What struck me the most in “looking behind the curtain” at this entire show was that fact that nothing is taken for granted. All the men and women involved–performers and crew alike–are on their game. Nothing is mailed in. Everyone does their job and they do it well around here. I used to cover professional sports while in college and the best I can liken the Chicago experience to is how everything changed when it came time for playoffs; the demarcation between the regular season and the playoffs was as big as the Grand Canyon. The regular season was great but the playoffs were steps above that……many. For Chicago and Wally, however, everyday is playoff time. One would think that selling 100+ million records and receiving countless accolades and awards would entitle a band to once in a while take a night off. Evidently, Chicago and Wally never got the memo. They come ready to play and I guess that would explain how one could sell so many records and also wind up in the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame.
Anyway, time for Wally to get to work. It’s getting close to show time. As I make my exit many a smiling face thank me for stopping by and invite me to come again. (Really? What? That’s like Tom Brady thanking me for asking for his autograph). I attribute a lot of that infectious enthusiasm to people like Wally. He is so engaging I can’t stand it (meant as a compliment). No wonder Chicago scooped him up. In fact, Wally’s interaction with basically anyone–crew included–is worth noting. At every twist and turn is a friendly face to guide and care for the performers and now I understand why this band is so successful. Everybody wants to be here.
In fact, the work ethic and energy is not confined to the Chicago side of the equation either. Not surprisingly, everyone–Chicago camp or not–knew Wally and interacted with him. You can see the energy and that is why this tour (and any future tour with Chicago/EWF) is a must see. The behind the scenes tour is a great show in and of itself even away from the music.
All in all, seeing Wally’s workday up close and personal, while on the road with Chicago, was an amazing experience. I can now understand a bit more why this musical formula called Chicago has worked for so long and been so successful and think about that. 50 years. How many great bands have become irrelevant or have discovered that they could not withstand the tide of change brought on by an incoming new genre? Not Wally and Chicago. They are going strong and I am confident they will be in business well past their 50th anniversary. There is plenty of gas left in the tank and I should know because I just checked it.