No More Storm, But REO Still Ridin’ – By Hayden Seay – 6-17-16

MICHAEL A. MARIANT/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Singer/guitarist Kevin Cronin and guitarist Dave Amato of REO Speedwagon.

Fourteen years have passed since REO Speedwagon last played a show at Riverbend.

Nothing has changed in the band since then.

 MICHAEL A. MARIANT /THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Kevin Cronin has been the fulltime lead singer of REO Speedwagon since 1976.

Kevin Cronin has been the fulltime lead singer of REO Speedwagon since 1976.

Neil Doughty, who helped found the band in 1967, is still the keyboardist. Kevin Cronin is still the lead singer, a role he’s played fulltime since 1976. Bassist Bruce Hall still holds down the music’s bottom end, which he’s done since 1977. Even the “new guys” — guitarist Dave Amato and drummer Bryan Hitt — have been there since 1989.

And the band’s setlist still includes songs that range from 32 to 43 years old — “Ridin’ the Storm Out” (1973), “Roll With the Changes” (1978), “Time for Me to Fly” (1978), “Take It on the Run” (1981), “Keep the Fire Burnin’” (1982) and two No. 1 hits, both power ballads, 1980’s “Keep on Loving You” and 1984’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” You can bet most of those songs will be heard tonight when the band takes the Coca-Cola Stage.

“Classic rock radio has kept our music in people’s ears and the bottom line of the whole thing is that the kind of songs we write are kind of like folk song. I look at them as just electrified folk songs,” Cronin told New Jersey’s Aquarian Weekly in 2014. “People relate to them.”

And he acknowledged that, while “there are some artists that really love to challenge the listener, who look to push the boundaries and really break new ground and challenge traditions … that’s never what REO Speedwagon was.

“Our music is a little more palatable and not by design,” said Cronin, who joined in 1972, left in 1973 (the ever-present “internal conflicts”) and came back in 1976. “I just write the kind of songs that I write and let the chips fall where they may. Our music seems to stick to people’s ribs a little bit more.”

REO began in 1967 at the University of Illinois’ campus in Champaign, but a steady lineup was hard to hold; people came and went in the band over the next several years; there’ve been 22 members since it started. Of major importance to REO’s fortunes, however, guitarist Gary Richrath joined in 1969; a prolific songwriter as well as guitarist, he and Cronin wrote almost all the band’s songs before Richrath left in 1989, dissatisfied with the band’s musical direction. Richrath died last year.

Once Cronin became the set-in-stone lead singer, the band began a slow climb to success. Its 1978 album, “You Can Tuna Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish,” got REO noticed on a wider scale than any of its six previous releases, hitting No. 29 on Billboard’s Top Album chart

Two years later, the band’s fortunes skyrocketed. “Hi Infidelity” hit No. 1 on the Album charts with a No. 1 single, “Keep on Loving You,” another Top 10 with “Take It on the Run” and two others in the Top 30. Eventually, the album sold more than 9 million copies in the U.S.

“This is the sound of the stadiums in that netherworld between giants like Zeppelin and MTV’s slick, video-ready anthems,” Stephen Thomas Erlewine says on “This is unabashedly mainstream rock, but there’s a real urgency to the songs and the performances that gives it a real emotional core, even if the production keeps it tied to the early, previsual ’80s.

“There’s a real strain of pathos that runs through these songs — the album’s title isn’t just a clever pun, but a description of the tortured romantic relationships that populate this record’s songs,” he wrote.

In an interview with Guitar World in March 2013, Cronin said the band’s all-music-all-thetime focus had wrecked many of their home relationships.

“The fact is, we had either been in the studio or on the road for a long time, and the nonstop process was starting to take its toll on all of our relationships,” he said. “It all came to a head in 1980, when we started working on songs for the album.”

The band followed up “Hi Infidelity” with the platinum-selling “Good Trouble” in 1982 then 1984’s double-platinum “Wheels Are Turnin’,” which had the No. 1 ballad “Can’t Fight this Feeling,” a song inspired by Cronin’s feelings for a woman who was dating a friend of his.

“The first time I was introduced to her, when I saw her … it was that love at first sight feeling,” he told Songwriter Universe in January this year. “There was no way we would get together because she was with my friend.

“As time went on, and my buddy broke up with her, we still remained friends. I just couldn’t get the courage up to make that leap of vulnerability, to share with her that I had feelings for her that were more than friendship. It took a long time, and I wrote that song before I finally got the guts to tell her. The song kind of came first.”

After “Wheels are Turnin’,” REO’s popularity and success began to dwindle. Since 1990, they’ve only released four albums, and one was a Christmas album. But Cronin told Songwriter Universe that he’s got the songwriting urge again and he may not be able to fight the feeling.

“I was thinking about this today, this year [2016] will be the year that I get back to knucklin’ down,” he said. “I’m finding myself waking up in the middle of the night with ideas, and writing them down and recording them.”


Contact Hayden Seay at hseay@timesfreepress. com or 423-757-6396.

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