Monday, August 05, 2019

And They're Still Together: Years Down the Road, REO Speedwagon Remains a Fun Ride -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

REO Speedwagon 
w/ opening act Charlie Farren
Rosemont Theatre
August 3, 2019

As if the world needed further proof of my lack of hipness, Saturday night I was not out at Lollapalooza catching Twenty One Pilots, J Balvin, AJR or anyone else those under 30 might know well.

I also wasn't at any Lolla aftershows, nor seeing genuine rock legend Ringo Starr at Ravinia.

Rather, with a decidedly mature, somewhat paunchy white crowd at the rather vanilla Rosemont Theatre, I saw...

REO Speedwagon

...who weren't even cool when they were the most popular rock band in the world.

I still recall, back when I was in junior high, buying REO’s double-album hits collection, A Decade of Rock and Roll 1970 to 1980, because some kids at school opened my ears to “Roll With the Changes,” “Time for Me to Fly” and “Ridin’ the Storm Out.”

Then in November 1980, the band released Hi Infidelity, which I bought almost instantly, and thanks in part to lead single “Keep on Loving You” hitting to #1—as did the album—REO Speedwagon became huge. Hi Infidelity would be the biggest-selling album of 1981.

And it was cool, because along with Styx and Cheap Trick—who had peaked a bit earlier but was my favorite of the trio—three of the biggest bands of the day hailed from Illinois.

But almost as soon as REO exploded, the 7th Grade intelligentsia decreed them uncool, seemingly due to the saccharin stylings of “Keep on Loving You” and “Take It on the Run,” and the effeminate nature of lead singer Kevin Cronin (who happens to be long married to the same woman).

I was too young to attend REO’s 4-night stand at the International Amphitheatre in February 1981, or see them at Poplar Creek the next summer, and with 1984’s #1 single, “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” being particularly schmaltzy, any acute Speedwagon fandom—aside from an enduring affinity for a few favorites—had largely stalled.

At some point, I did see REO Speedwagon at a free 4th of July show at Great Lakes Naval Base—Cronin’s long curly brown hair was then short and blond—but was somewhat shocked to recently discover that that was back in 1999.

In recent years, I’ve been acutely trying to fill in some gaps in my “Seen Live” roster, seeing several acts for a first time or, even if not, better appreciating some enduring bands I once avoided.

In part, I stopped giving a shit about what might be considered unhip.

Last year, I saw Journey for the first time—albeit without Steve Perry—on a bill with Def Leppard, and this past May, caught Dennis de Young, the former mainstay in Styx, at the Rosemont Theatre.

That show in particular made me think, “I really should see REO again.”

I knew that Gary Richrath, the lead guitarist from REO’s heyday, had left in 1989 and passed away in 2015. But a check of Wikipedia informed that otherwise, the band has remained relatively intact. 

Keyboardist Neal Doughty, who helped form the band in Champaign in 1967, continues to tour, as does Cronin—now sporting white hair--and Bruce Hall, a bassist since 1977.

And “new” members, guitarist Dave Amato and aptly-named drummer Bryan Hitt, have been around for 30 years.

I was also somewhat surprised at how well sold the essentially packed 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre was, but was able to get myself a single balcony seat for a reasonable price a few weeks ago.

After a solo set by a singer/guitarist named Charlie Farren, who did a lot of talking I couldn’t make out, REO Speedwagon took the stage around 8:50pm with Hi Infidelity’s “Don’t Let Him Go.”

It was the first of seven songs—of 18 total—to come from the landmark album, including the record’s last two tracks, "Someone Tonight" (sung by Hall) and "I Wish You Were There."

The amiable Cronin, who hails from Oak Lawn, noted on multiple occasions that it was great to be home, and even spoke of his mom still living in the house where he grew up.

Especially in having Spotifamiliarized myself with recent setlists, it was nice that along with other Hi Infidelity album cuts like “In Your Letter” and “Tough Guys,” and, understandably, “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” REO reached quite a ways back for “Music Man,” “Son of a Poor Man”—with Cronin’s intro having paid warm tribute to Richrath—and “Golden Country,” which Cronin performed acoustically by himself.

Following that song, he also did a solo “Building a Bridge,” after having told a warm story of playing
it in Israel for both Jews and Palestinians, albeit separately.

“Take It on the Run” made for a great singalong, and “Time for Me to Fly” an even better one.

Hall nicely took center stage again for “Back on the Road Again” before “Ridin’ the Storm Out” closed the main set.

I can’t call it the most dynamic performance I’ve ever seen, but with Cronin in good voice, the show was pretty much all I could’ve hoped for.

Though I imagine it’s been the case for decades, “Keep on Loving You” and “Roll With the Changes”—both with Cronin on piano—made for a perfect encore pairing.

And as many in the balcony were shuffling out, REO gave Chicago/Rosemont a somewhat rare “157 Riverside Avenue,” the band’s first single from 1971, before Cronin had even joined the band.

I don’t mean any great disrespect or disparagement to the popular American duo Twenty One Pilots.

That they can regularly sell out the United Center and fill a field at Lollapalooza is impressive, and they supposedly put on a fun show on Saturday.

More power to them, and their fans.

But on several occasions I’ve tried to listen to them on Spotify or watch concert clips on YouTube, and there is nothing I’ve found particularly enjoyable or memorable.

So call me uncool, unhip, an old dorky dweeb, etc..

That’s fine.

But even though I still wouldn’t call REO Speedwagon one of my very favorite rock bands, I know that singing along to “Time for Me to Fly” and “Roll With the Changes” and even “Keep on Loving You,” I had more fun than I would’ve with the hipsters at Lollapalooza.

Say what you want but REO Speedwagon remains a fun ride.

Here's just a brief snippet of "Time for Me to Fly":

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