Photos & Story by Scott Smith
A power ballad-filled reputation often tails REO Speedwagon like merciless paparazzi, yet the Illinois-borne quintet is so much more than a metaphorical jukebox crammed with love songs.
The popular rock band blazed through a well-paced set Feb. 23 at a packed Tulsa Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, balancing must-play hit singles with pounding, lengthy passages that allowed lead singer Kevin Cronin, lead guitarist Dave Amato, bassist Bruce Hall, keyboardist Neal Doughty and drummer Bryan Hitt to stretch their flexible musical chops. Like Fleetwood Mac, REO Speedwagon gains more grit in the concert setting, giving songs like “Take It on the Run” and even “Keep On Loving You” a harder, rock-fueled edge.
A positive, encouraging vibe radiated from the group to the audience and vice versa, with the Buddy Holly-esque rhythms of “Don’t Let Him Go” arriving in the set first. Cronin showed his voice to be strong while playing rhythm guitar and piano, and his rock-and-roll preacher persona was in full-throttle gear. His between-song banter had charm, and his energy kept his busy feet shuffling from stage left to stage right and back.
Sometimes criticized — unfairly — by a few fans, Amato displayed the ultimate team-player attitude, tackling his guitar solos with a fun vengeance but tastefully toning down his riffs during Cronin’s singing passages. When Cronin put his arm around Amato’s neck near the end of “Roll With the Changes,” Amato laughed before singing terrific, high-harmony parts.
Doughty supplied fantastic B3 Hammond organ parts, crucial piano lines and occasional washes of synthesizer, while Hall stepped up to the microphone for an absolutely gripping version of 1979’s “Back on the Road Again.” Hall’s voice, miraculously, sounded even better than it did on the studio original, and his pre-song bass solo was fluid, flooring long-time fans.
“Did Bruce sing ‘Back on the Road Again’ originally?” asked one fan. “Yeah, he did,” answered the man next to him. “Wow, I never knew that,” said the fan. “That’s really cool.”
REO’s Tulsa gig wasn’t just a rock concert. It was a revival that not only celebrated REO’s back catalog, but it addressed the freedoms and responsibilities that co-exist in the United States. Cronin told the audience he felt blessed to live in a country where he can express himself openly. He also said he greeted other people’s opinions and interests with an open mind.
Well, almost everyone else. Cronin took a playful jab at frequent touring partner Ted Nugent, saying he and Detroit’s Motor City Madman had an on-going difference of opinion on what song is rock’s greatest ballad.
“Whenever we tour with Ted, he introduces one song as the No. 1 love song of all time,” said a smiling Cronin before several audience members laughed. “Ted says that right before he plays ‘Cat Scratch Fever.'”
At that moment, Amato emerged from the shadows, mimicking the song’s instantly recognizable guitar intro before silencing his instrument and smiling.
“Hey, is Ted here?” Cronin asked jokingly. “Oh no, that’s Dave. Dave played with Ted for many years and he knows all about Ted. Yes, and REO is actually touring again with Ted and Styx in the spring.” (The three will play Tulsa’s BOK Center on May 8.)
In Tulsa, REO showed that alternative rock-loving naysayers could be wrong about Midwestern-style rock. Hipsters keep telling the world that it’s cooler to like The Black Keys over so-called “corporate bands” like REO, Styx and Journey, yet when REO unleashed the one-two punch of “Time for Me To Fly” and “Back on the Road Again” near the end of the Tulsa concert, REO proved the haters wrong — dead wrong. No matter what your musical tastes and biases might be today, if your body doesn’t move and your face doesn’t smile the very second the first chorus of “Time for Me To Fly” happens, you have no heart. Or soul. Or pulse.