“Oh me, oh my, a freakin’ rock show, man!” REO Speedwagon lead singer Kevin Cronin called out two songs into the band’s semi-annual visit to Tampa Bay.
The band behind “One Lonely Night” is back on the road, and it’s undoubtedly celebrating a number of things. Needless to say, the return of live music after a crippling worldwide pandemic is not something that happens every day, and is certainly something that’s bound to be acknowledged at practically every concert that rolls into town for the next year or so. But the guys in REO have their minds set on something even bigger: The rock quintet’s current tour, which rocked Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall on Wednesday night, is in honor of the 40th—well technically, the 41st anniversary (thanks, COVID) of its critically-acclaimed Hi Infidelity album.
This isn’t like Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds tour, in which Cronin wails out all 30-something minutes of the diamond-selling album. It’s more of a healthy mix of songs from the album that put REO Speedwagon on the map, and then the hits that classic rock radio listeners came to hear. Like it or not, REO Speedwagon is a nostalgia act. The show barely cracked the 90-minute mark, and there’s not any new music being promoted. In a recent phone interview, keyboardist Neal Doughty told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that he feels that the world has more than enough REO Speedwagon songs available at its disposal.
At the promised start time of 8 p.m., REO did not come out. Instead, Clearwater was treated with a previously unannounced opening act. Nashville country trio Levon mainly stayed in covers mode, aside from a few originals. And these weren’t half-assed covers, either. At one point, the trio did an absolutely ideal rendition of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping.” Even if by some miracle, Crosby, Stills, and Nash get back together, their current harmonies could not hold a candle to what these boys from Nashville gave us. And CSN is up there with The Beach Boys in terms of gorgeous harmonies, mind you.
An hour after Levon started, with the REO Speedwagon logo-graced backdrop revealed, and the LED bandstands all set to go, Bruce Hall picked up his bass, Neal Doughty headed towards his keyboard, and rock concerts officially returned to Ruth Eckerd Hall. Immediately, the band launched into “Music Man,” off of 1972’s R.E.O./T.W.O., the album of which introduced Cronin to the world. Like most everything else that was to come, the early cut from the band’s career was played a half step or two down from its original key. But nobody onstage seemed to mind that Cronin’s voice can only go so far as the years go by.
The Hi Infidelity salute began three songs in. Kicking it off was the album’s opener “Don’t Let Him Go.” An obviously rousing singalong of “Take It On The Run” came about next, and surprisingly enough, Kevin and the guys’ harmonies in the chorus still sound solid. Finally, “Tough Guys” opened with the “Little Rascals” “I have to live my own life” intro, and the song itself saw some gritty guitar work from Dave Amato and his Gibson SG.
Gary Richrath, the band’s original guitarist, and leading creative force, left REO Speedwagon to launch a solo career in 1989. Though he passed away in 2015, Amato has the same energy and stage presence that Richrath gave off back in the early days of the band. Despite not showing off any tapping techniques, watching Amato hit the front of the stage, and effortlessly shred the crap out of his many six-strings—one of which was a double-neck, made it feel like he had been in REO Speedwagon from day one.
The show mostly felt like a time-warp of wall-to-wall hits. “Can’t Fight This Feeling” was dedicated to those who lost their virginity to the song, “Golden Country” was opened with a remark regarding how proud Cronin is to be an American, and Bruce Hall took the mic on “Back On The Road Again,” which was penned by him back in the late ‘70s, for REO Speedwagon’s Nine Lives album. But, perhaps the highlight of the show was about three-quarters of the way through.
On Saturday, July 17, the music world lost Kansas violinist Robby Steinhardt—a Tampa Bay resident—to pancreatitis. Later on in the show, Cronin dedicated “Time For Me To Fly” to the violin virtuoso. “We’re thinking about dear Robby when we play this next song,” he announced. The already-heartbreaking power ballad got the crowd back on its feet, and it stayed that way until the lights came up after the band’s encore, which came about 20 minutes later.
After “Ridin’ The Storm Out” closed out the main set, said encore featured Cronin getting behind a grand piano to squeeze out “Keep On Lovin’ You,” and then “Roll With The Changes.” The latter featured the crowd reciting the “keep on rollin’” refrain all throughout the last few minutes of the show’s closing. There may have even been some people humming it on their way out the Ruth Eckerd Hall doors.
It’s worth mentioning that while Ruth Eckerd Hall has hosted some epic shows in the last few months, REO Speedwagon’s performance was the first full capacity event held at the Hall ever since COVID-19 hit. Masks are no longer required for those who are fully vaccinated—although unfortunately, with the massive amount of fans there, some unmasked folks were probably lying about their vaxx status.
Either way, rock and roll in the flesh is back. Freak out.
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