Photos and Story by Scott A. Smith
Armed with loud guitars and aim-to-please set lists, Styx, REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent brought their Midwest Rock-N-Roll Express Tour screeching into the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., on May 8.
All three acts served their A-game to 10,000 cheering fans inside the darkened, great-sounding venue, assertively taking the stage for their respective moments in the multi-colored spotlights. The controversial Nugent’s evening-opening, high-gear set was the loudest of the three bands at an ear-popping 108 decibels, with the Motor City Madman’s guitar buzz-sawing its way through fan treasures “Wango Tango,” “Just What the Doctor Ordered,” “Hey Baby” and “Turn It Up.”
Underneath a cowboy hat and a headset microphone, Nugent playfully grimaced for the crowd and dropped F-bombs while discussing President Obama. In between the loud-as-a-jet-engine songs, the bold front-man also wagged a metaphorical middle finger to those who have criticized his hunting practices and mostly conservative viewpoints.
The on-going friendship between Nugent and his singer-rhythm guitarist, Derek St. Holmes, served as a spiritual and sonic anchor for Nugent’s set. St. Holmes, whose voice helped characterize Nugent’s original studio work, summoned well-balanced, rhythmic guitar shades while Nugent unleashed his speedy, lead-guitar fury on the Tulsa stage.
St. Holmes sounded excellent on the lead-vocal mic for the set’s highlight, a pulsating, hypnotic take of the prog-rockish “Stranglehold,” and a fun run-through of Nugent’s widescreen-esque “Great White Buffalo” acted as the note-perfect encore.
As pre-recorded music from The Who blasted from the sound system, Styx emerged from the stage curtain to dive straight into the hard-rock heaven that is “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights).” Commanding the stage with the night’s longest, most-energetic set, Styx threw fans a curveball by including the bouncy “Light Up” and the speed-demon fury of “Rockin’ the Paradise” in the up-tempo proceedings.
Guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young traded off impressive six-string attacks while bassist Ricky Phillips, keyboardist-singer Lawrence Gowan and drummer Todd Sucherman locked together for a bullet-proof foundation. Phillips slung low notes from his 5-string bass, while Gowan’s strong tenor led a rousing rendition of the early Styx hit, “Lady.”
Young’s assertive vocals marched through the stomping “Miss America,” while Shaw’s voice alternated between near-prayer quietness and full-throttle madman howl for an adrenalized “Renegade.” When it came time to begin the majestic “Come Sail Away,” Gowan playfully stitched together piano parts from Eric Clapton’s “Layla” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” before singing snippets of Pink Floyd, Queen and Led Zeppelin. Gowan then started the piano intro to “Come Sail Away,” which was answered by countless cell-phone lights and the small, yellowish flames from about 50 Bic lighters.
Show-closer REO Speedwagon rushed the stage for the Bo Diddly-flavored “Don’t Let Him Go,” with bassist Bruce Hall’s bass notes taking on a near-perfect sound quality as they emitted from the stage’s mighty sound system. Although they didn’t play quite as long as they did at the Tulsa Hard Rock in late February, the members of REO Speedwagon still had plenty of passion and, possibly, the best sound quality of the night.
REO drummer Bryan Hitt pounded out each song’s beats without overplaying, and guitarist Dave Amato wailed away on the solo breaks. Hall later launched into a 60-second bass solo before standing center-stage to sing rock’s greatest love-them-and-leave-them tale, the always-wonderful “Back on the Road Again.”
Letting his rock-and-roll preacher persona fly with grinning pride, REO front-man Kevin Cronin also was in winning shape. When seen in person, Cronin’s rhythm guitar efforts are more aggressive than one might believe. His piano playing, as heard on “Roll with the Changes” and “Keep On Loving You,” hasn’t diminished a bit.
The same can be said for REO’s keyboardist Neal Doughty. Setting up camp with his Hammond organ and keyboards at stage right, Doughty played all the right mid-range notes, trading solo breaks hot potato-style with Amato’s adventurous, edgy guitar playing.
Sure, in some people’s eyes it might be more “hip” to dig The Black Keys these days, but with the Styx/REO/Nugent tour stacking up hit songs and FM diamonds by the train car, it’s impossible not to soak in the still-great sounds from these three rock icons. In all fairness, Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach is a worthy talent, but we all know that Sucherman and Hitt both could out-drum Black Keys drummer (and perpetual insult-hurler) Patrick Carney with both hands tied behind their backs.