Chicago’s music is timeless. You’re likely to recite on cue the lyrics to classics like “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday in the Park,” or “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?,” but even the band’s lesser known work still holds just as much culture.
The same can be said of the work of REO Speedwagon, as its music still has a rightful residence on classic rock radio stations across the globe. Who among us hasn’t caught ourselves singing along to “Take It On the Run,” or “Can’t Fight This Feeling” a time or two, when we pass them on the radio dial?
These songs and many more were on full display on Tuesday night at the Walmart AMP in Rogers. Despite a brief, but active thunderstorm that passed through the area, (which delayed the gate opening and pushed back set times up against an 11 p.m. curfew), an at- or near-capacity crowd of Arkansas rock music fans rode the storm out, waiting in anticipation for a show that was sure to not disappoint. It didn’t.
Once the thunder and lightning dissipated and the gates opened, the temperature dropped and brought a nice, cool wind through the venue, which made for a perfect setting for a night of music. REO Speedwagon, the five-piece Champaign, Illinois-based rock outfit fronted by uber-cool frontman Kevin Cronin, kicked off the festivities by launching into the straightforward rocker “Don’t Let Him Go,” off of the group’s ten-time platinum LP Hi Infidelity. From there, the band weaved in hit after hit in their allotted hour-plus set. The band has been pushing on since 1967, but they proved on Tuesday that age was nothing but a number.
After “Don’t Let Him Go” and fellow Hi Infidelity track “In Your Letter,” Cronin and Co. ripped through the rocker “Keep Pushin’,” which drew a great response from the audience.
Cronin then addressed the crowd for the first time, noting that the band — whose members are in their mid-60s to early-70s — has been playing in the state since the 70s. He joked with the crowd that despite their ages, he was a “firm believer that rock-n-roll will keep you young forever,” which drew more applause from the crowd.
He also mentioned that former Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, and his wife, former Arkansas First Lady Ginger Beebe, were fans and great friends of the band, and have caught several of the band’s shows over the years. He noted that Ginger “likes love songs,” and dedicated the band’s 1984 power ballad “Can’t Fight This Feeling” to her.
REO Speedwagon, as noted previously, has been doing this for quite some time, and they put on one hell of a show. The band built a reputation as a great live act in the 70s, and can still captivate an audience to this day. The current cast has been together for several decades, and operate like a well-oiled machine.
Cronin, the band’s longtime vocalist, rhythm guitarist and second longest tenured member, sounds today just as fresh as he did when he joined in 1972. The man commands a stage, as well.
Bruce Hall, the band’s longtime bassist, and Dave Amato on lead guitar and backing vocals, are about as fun to watch interact with each other as it is to watch them play. Amato’s masterful riff work and soloing is a real treat to hear live. Bryan Hitt, on drums and percussion, didn’t miss a beat the entire night.
Neal Doughty, the lone founding member and original keyboardist, provided accompaniment for some of the group’s most memorable tunes.
The band had the crowd eating out of its hand throughout the evening, as it rolled through hit after hit like “Tough Guys,” “Time for Me to Fly,” and “Take it on the Run.” Closing out their first set with fan favorite “Ridin’ the Storm Out” seemed appropriate given the weather activity earlier in the evening. When the band returned for a brief encore, Cronin introduced the tender heartbreaker (and arguably the group’s biggest hit) “Keep On Loving You,” and noted that it was one of his favorite songs in the band’s catalog. The band ended their night with the rollicking Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers cover “Listen to Her Heart” and dedicated it to the late great musician.
In all, the band is a very solid live act, and a must see.
But the night was just getting started. OK, so where to start when talking about Chicago? This was one of the those band’s that had a big influence on me as a musician and music fan, as my pop would play their records all the time at the house when I was growing up.
The band has a pretty well documented history of lineup changes. Though only four founding members remain — keyboardist and vocalist Robert Lamm, trombonist and vocalist James Pankow, saxophonist, woodwinds player and vocalist Walt Parazaider, and trumpeter and vocalist Lee Loughnane — the band was still as tight as it’s ever been and flawlessly delivered its signature blend of self-described “rock and roll with horns.”
The band, supplemented by now permanent members in guitarist and vocalist Keith Howland, keyboardist and vocalist Lou Pardini, woodwind player and vocalist Ray Herrmann, drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr., bassist and vocalist Brett Simons, percussionist Raymond “Ray” Yslas, and newcomer Neil Donnell, the out-of-this-world lead tenor (a.k.a. the Cetera replacement).
OK, so about the Cetera replacement thing — that was my one reservation about going to see this version of Chicago, because Cetera provided lead vocals on some of my all-time favorite Chicago tunes. And although Cetera’s voice is irreplaceable, I was pleasantly surprised with Donnell. He was excellent and has some killer pipes.
The band kicked off the evening with some early tunes, beginning with the super fun funk-jazz classic Dialogue (Parts 1 & 2) — a politically charged composition that casts ire and 70s-era themes of war, hunger, depression and love. Chicago then seamlessly transitioned into the 1969 rocker “Questions 67 and 68” and then hit upon the first crowd favorite of the night — “Call on Me” off of 1974’s Chicago VII.
As the night progressed, the band traded off jazzy jams and extended percussion, horn and other musical interludes with the hits and it was a pleasure to watch live. The Chicago brass section is a formidable force.
Among the highlights of the night from Chicago were performances of “Make Me Smile,” “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” and “You Are the Inspiration.”
As I scanned the audience midway through the band’s set, most were dancing, and having a great time.
When Donnell forged into the hit-heavy encore, it was really his time to flex his vocal prowess. He perfectly executed on hits like “Street Player,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Beginnings,” “Feeling Stronger Every Day,” and, of course, “25 or 6 to 4.”
As the band bid its adieu, Lamm thanked the Rogers crowd and proclaimed it “the best one of the tour.”
Chicago and REO Speedwagon will continue their co-headlining tour this summer. For tour dates, click here.
Photos courtesy of Dustin Beck.