“We didn’t make it out of the Midwest by being a ballad band,” REO Speedwagon bass player Bruce Hall told Glide during a 2013 interview. “We rock, we rock hard.” With a set-list full of hits from their near-50 year career, the band from Illinois proved their claim to fame is not all super-ballad based. Yes, they had a massive hit with “Keep On Lovin’ You” in 1980 that today almost rivals Journey’s “Open Arms” in love song popularity. And yes, “In Your Letter” conjures up a 1950’s sock hop. But “Ridin’ The Storm Out” and the Hall sung “Back On The Road” pop a bunch of good rocking wheelies … even in 2016.
When REO released their first album in 1971, it didn’t cause much of a stir. Vocals were handled by Terry Luttrell and had much more of a BTO/Foghat vibe. Kevin Cronin took over the frontman position for the second album but departed during the recording of the third album, Ridin’ The Storm Out, returning for the band’s sixth studio LP, REO in 1976. It’s interesting that “Storm” has become one of their most popular hits but not until Cronin started performing it live, leaving Mike Murphy’s vocals on the studio version virtually erased from memory. Having it be the concert’s crescendo was the perfect end to a night of good time music.
Keyboardist Neal Doughty and drummer Alan Gratzer formed the band in 1967 while at college. Guitarist Gary Richraft would join in 1970 and give the band it’s songwriting magic touch. Hall would come into the REO family in 1977 and compose the rocker – and major highlight of the Biloxi concert at the IP Casino last week – “Back On The Road Again” for 1979’s Nine Lives. Hall remembered the band as “trying to become more than what they were at that point in time.” With a few regional hits under their belt before he joined, “they were afraid they were going to lose their recording contract only because they were not selling a lot of records but enough to just barely make ends meet.”
But Hi Infidelity swept all those doubts, both the band’s and record company’s, away with one hit after another: “Keep On Lovin’ You,” “Take It On The Run” and “Don’t Let Him Go,” all of which are part of their setlist today, all garnering loud cheers from the crowd. “It’s like we left the Earth for a while,” said Hall about the fame that happened seemingly overnight. Although REO would never quite reach those heights again on follow-up albums, they kept going, kept entertaining all the fans that never gave up on them through changing musical landscapes. Their music still has a place, as the teens who had Hi Infidelity on their turntables nonstop grow into grandparents introducing the music to new generations.
Both Richraft and Gratzer left REO in the late 1980’s (Richraft passed away in 2015) but the core of Cronin, Doughty and Hall stayed, causing that familiar sound to remain intact all these years. Drummer Bryan Hitt and former Nugent axeman Dave Amato came in shortly after the departures and have been with the band since. Amato especially has found a way to add his personality to the ingrained-in-our-memories Richraft licks while Hitt has a bouncy energy that lacked in Gratzer’s live performances. But Cronin’s vocals have yet to age. “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Take It On The Run” and “Don’t Let Him Go” fizz with a happy energy reminiscent of those early years of being performed live.
Doughty sat at the grand piano during “In Your Letter;” Cronin took over for “Roll With The Changes” and “Keep On Lovin’ You.” Amato strapped on a double-neck for “Time For Me To Fly” and Hitt pounded on his gong to introduce “Ridin’ The Storm Out.” Cronin also told stories between songs, remembering how the record company’s demand for a hit song coaxed out those opening chords of “Lovin’ You” in a dream one night, how “Letter” was inspired by a girlfriend of a band member whose other boyfriend was the group’s “provider of party materials,” and Cronin’s own brush with being a priest ending with puberty and a “vow of rock & roll.”
But two very distinct moments stood out from the night: “Back On The Road” and “Ridin’ The Storm Out.” In the former, Hall takes on lead vocals and entered into a bass/guitar duet with Amato that sounded like a speeding bullet of sound. Best song of the night for sure, if you were there for the rock and not the ballads. “Storm” took on hurricane winds itself once Amato stormed into Nugent’s “Stranglehold” deep into the song, something that a longtime fan said he had never seen before but has actually been a part of their set for a few years now. With Amato doing the vocals, it ripped up the joint and made “Storm” even better, making Amato a hidden gem amongst guitar-loving fans who don’t find themselves into the kind of rock & roll REO Speedwagon produces.
So with that being said, if you’re still thinking REO is a ballad-hoarding pop band from the early 1980’s, well, yeah, you’re going to get that but you’re also going to get so much more. Time to put those preconceptions to rest and just go and have a good time. That’s what they do best.
REO will be a part of the Def Leppard tour starting May 11 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough