I’ll be honest right upfront here; I’ve never really been a fan of the band REO Speedwagon. I don’t say that in an attempt to seem trendy or forward thinking, because lord knows I’m a fan of any number of bands that most would consider quite unhip. I just never really gravitated toward that particular classic rock band. Part of my aversion has a lot to do with what is arguably REO Speedwagon’s biggest hit, “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” That 1984 single spent three weeks at the number one position on the US charts, and as a result it gets played at least 27 times a day on every classic rock station out there. Even back in the 80’s, when that song was brand new, I loathed it. Still, after several years of working in radio, I came to appreciate some of the band’s more rocking numbers, such as “Riding the Storm Out” and “Time For Me to Fly.” I still wasn’t going to go out and buy an REO album, but at least there was more to the band than that one horrible song.
I’d heard that the band put on a pretty decent concert, but it wasn’t until this past weekend that I got to experience REO Speedwagon live for myself. Saturday night’s show at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center started with an opening set by local artist Mark Bryan. Most folks know Bryan as the guitarist for Hootie and The Blowfish, but like the other members of that band, Bryan writes and records his own music. Bryan was joined onstage by his fiancé, Wendy Crisp, who sang with Bryan. Rounding out the band was former Cravin’ Melon drummer Gary Greene and former Jump, Little Children bassist Jonathan Gray. The group performed a short set of songs, including a great song, “Coffee County Line,” that Bryan told the crowd he wrote with another local songwriter, Carolyn Evans. Bryan and Crisp did a good job mixing their vocals during the set, and the crowd seemed to enjoy the performance. During the intermission Bryan and Crisp signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans in the lobby.
When REO Speedwagon finally hit the stage, it was in front of a crowd that filled about three-quarters of the PAC. Lead singer Kevin Cronin and guitarist Dave Amato got the crowd pumped up early with a few upbeat tunes, but the crowd really went wild when Cronin sang the first few bars of the song “Take It On The Run.” The current version of REO was rounded out on Saturday by bassist Bruce Hall, drummer Bryan Hitt, and keyboardist and sole remaining founding member Neal Doughty.
One of the things that impressed me about Saturday’s show was the fact that REO Speedwagon went the extra mile in its stage and lighting scheme. Far too often a classic rock band will simply hang a curtain, hit it with some colored lights, and rely on that, and their amplifier stacks to provide the stage setup. Despite being in the PAC, and not next door at the larger Coliseum, REO’s setup included a multi-level set of risers that lit up, as well as several light towers stationed behind the drum kit, keyboards and baby grand piano.
As the concert went on, I came to a couple of realizations. First, REO Speedwagon rocked out live a little harder than I was expecting. There’s a reason the band has survived well past its 80’s heyday, and a lot of that has to do with Cronin, who seems to have found a great balance when it comes to being an enthusiastic front man. Neither overly obnoxious nor annoyingly aloof, Cronin instead seems just genuinely happy to be performing in front of his fans. As he led the band through hits such as “Roll With the Changes” and “Time For Me to Fly,” his energy was contagious, and despite my previous indifference to the band, I had to admit I was enjoying myself. Then they played the song, and I immediately remembered why I hadn’t ever really fallen in love with REO’s music. Seriously, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is my kryptonite. There are a handful of songs out there that I honesty hate, and that 80’s classic tops the list.
While REO does indeed rock out in grand fashion onstage at their shows, they nonetheless inhabit that gray area between rock and easy listening. Their neighbors are acts like America, Journey, Night Ranger, and any other number of the bands from the 70’s and 80’s that were just as well known for their schmaltzy ballads as they were for their guitar-charged rockers. There’s really nothing wrong with that sound, but it only goes so far in the rock world. Watching the band play, I was reminded of Stuart, one of the minor characters in the 90’s MTV cartoon “Beavis and Butthead.” Stuart was the younger kid from down the street who tried to be cool, but inevitably ended up looking like a dork. While the cartoon’s title characters sported AC/DC and Metallica t-shirts, Stuart sported one with that cheesiest of hair metal era bands, Winger. I honestly believe that if “Beavis and Butthead” had aired a decade earlier, Stuart would be wearing an REO Speedwagon shirt.
So I guess I can honestly say that, while I still won’t be running out to buy any REO Speedwagon albums, I will give them credit for coming out and showing their fans a fun time last Saturday night.