Will the real REO Speedwagon please stand up.
You see, I was fully prepared to write a casual little review for an expected conventional REO Speedwagon show at the well-attended and nearly 9,000 seat L.B. Day Amphitheater on Monday at the Oregon State Fair, in Salem, OR. Evidently, they have rolled with some changes bringing a welcome update to what had become a somewhat stale performance and setlist.
A few years have passed since the last time I saw these 1980s arena crushing rockers, and even further back since seeing them as headliner (no opening act this night) but it got to the point where along with the lyrics, I knew what song was up next and eventually could recite what singer Kevin Cronin would say in between songs whether as a bit of band history or simply audience banter. You really can’t go wrong with a mostly “best of” REO Speedwagon concert but it got a bit routine, to say the least.
Well, throw that all out the window. Not to worry, REO Speedwagon, which pretty much has a full setlist of radio and casual fan favorite fare, brought out those rocking, classic smash singles but they dove pretty deep into their catalog of music – some of it now approaching 50 years – playing some obscure songs and even a couple I was not sure I had ever heard before in a thoroughly satisfying 16-song, 90 minute set to a sometimes exuberant audience.
REO Speedwagon started the evening with the popular “Don’t Let Him Go” then went way back in time for the country-sounding “Music Man” from 1972’s R.E.O/T.W.O., a really cool song by the way, and then hit the first of seven off the album that changed the band’s life, Hi Infidelity, with the obscure “In Your Letter.” Guitarist Dave Amato rocked “Keep Pushin'” with a solid solo and then they brought what even today’s high school proms are made of with “Can’t Fight This Feeling” which sounded as good as ever. The catchy “Tough Guys” held court before the band really got deep in music and thought.
They honored original guitarist Gary Richrath, who died in 2015, with his penned “Son of a Poor Man” from in 1973’s Ridin the Storm Out. Then bassist Bruce Hall took the mic for “Someone Tonight,” another unexpected plunge into the multi-platinum Hi Infidelty for which Cronin assumed everyone in the audience probably knew the lyrics. Almost as if to say, “Other songs do exist off that record!” But they weren’t done yet. The bluesy “I Wish You Were There” which closes the album added further dimension to the setlist with its slow and thoughtful melody that brought another Amato performance on guitar.
Finally, Cronin reminisced about his trip to Israel taken earlier this year which led him to play “Building the Bridge” the title track off their 14th studio album from 1996, a really nice song that featured just Cronin, an acoustic guitar and a call for peace and civility for the country.
After that it was no doubt what the majority of the audience came for starting with the audience favorite “Take It on the Run” then the rather emotional “Time for Me to Fly” (read those lyrics!) with one of the most euphonious opening bars of music I can think of, and then on to solid classic rock as Hall once again sang for the all too relevant “Back on the Road Again.” Cronin took his spot back as lead vocalist for “Ridin’ the Storm Out” and the band went out on a banger for the encore with “Keep on Living You” and “Roll with the Changes.”
The current line-up of REO Speedwagon has now performed together for 30 years and though fans probably shouldn’t expect new music, (their last was a Christmas album from 2009) they do a great job in keeping all those melodic and romantic ballads fresh and now apparently the setlist too, which did need some recycling. Cronin sounds the same as he has for years embracing a new vocal octave that fits very well live to compensate for the loss in that higher range so familiar with those arena filling anthems. Amato cranked out solos and rock chords, and when called for, some of the more heavy rock sounds like on “Back on the Road Again.” He and Hall enjoy great stage banter while drummer Bryan Hilt and keyboardist and sole founding member Neal Doughty hold the reins on their respective parts at the rear of the stage.
I am well aware that Monday’s show just might encapsulate the current arrangement of the REO Speedwagon live show but seeing them again, for the first time, I’d do it all again next week for the second time.
REO Speedwagon setlist in Salem, OR
1. Don’t Let Him Go
2. Music Man
3. In Your Letter
4. Keep Pushin’
5. Can’t Fight This Feeling
6. Tough Guys
7. Son of a Poor Man
8. Someone Tonight
9. I Wish You Were There
10. Building the Bridge
11. Take It On the Run
12. Time for Me to Fly
13. Back on the Road Again
14. Ridin’ the Storm Out
15. Keep on Loving You
16. Roll with the Changes