By Steve Houk livingonmusic.com
Their music was everywhere over a ten year stretch in the 70’s to mid 80’s. You really couldn’t flip on your favorite FM radio station and not hear something from them.
From early albums like Ridin’ The Storm Out (1973) and You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tune a Fish (1978), plus a hard rocking live album You Get What You Play For (1977) sandwiched in, all the way up to Hi Infidelity (1980), their breakthrough #1 record that to date has sold ten million copies and spawned one of the band’s two number one hits (“Keep On Loving You”), REO Speedwagon carved a niche in rock and roll that even with a lull in overall fame has largely stood the test of time. In the middle of a whirlwind current tour of the US, longtime lead singer Kevin Cronin no doubt smiles when he thinks of how the band has kept at it and is still bringing in fans who stand and sing their songs loud and proud, and realizes REO’s staying power has a few different elements.
“It’s a lot of things that have kept us going,” said the affable Cronin as he was going out the door with his band to be a part of the big Kaaboo Festival near San Diego. Their current tour will then bring them to the Warner Theater on September 24th.
“I mean, obviously our songs have found a place in people’s hearts. You know, we don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take what we do seriously. We work hard but we also have a lot of fun doing it. So I think that’s really the balance. You know, you have to enjoy it. And we do.”
Cronin joined REO in 1972, a year after the band released its debut album, and then left during the recording of Ridin’ The Storm Out in 1973 because of some internal conflicts. He returned to the band in 1976 after singer Greg Volz decided to turn to Christian rock, overall a hugely fortuitous move for the band’s burgeoning sound and style which Cronin would help mold and become a major part of. Sure, their high end fame took a bit of a nosedive as the 80’s waned, but because of the strength of their songs they would remain a touring band who can still draw to this day. Everyone knows bands can rarely sustain over forty years, yet REO has, and Cronin chalks it up to hard work, luck and, again, loving what you do.
“There wasn’t really an alternative to playing music, this is what we do,” said Cronin. “I’m very fortunate that it did last this long. I think that obviously in order for a music career to last as long as ours did, it takes a lot of work, and it also takes a good deal of good fortune. We love what we do and when you love what you do, then you just keep at it.”
REO Speedwagon began their journey in 1971 as a true rock and roll band with rollicking songs and big guitar solos coming from the late Gary Richrath, but always had a sense for the power ballad, especially with the release of Hi Infidelity. Serendipity would surround the band, as it turned out that a true combination of the two styles they had already largely honed would propel REO to bigtime success.
“It was just kind of a natural evolution of things for us, you know?” said Cronin. “The band started out as a hard rocking bar band, that was really fun. But I always had written songs that were a little more kind of folksy in a way, and so in 1980, they collided and the result was songs like ‘Keep on Loving You,’ which turned out to be a kind of love song, and ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling.’ But they also had this heavy guitar part and this powerful rythym section. So yeah, that combination just really clicked. And that was the big moment for us.”
That crowning moment of which Cronin speaks, Hi Infidelity, turns 40 in two years, and Cronin and his bandmates are already planning to celebrate the album’s anniversary, all while Cronin works hard on a memoir about the band and his experiences.
“Yeah, we’re really looking forward to 2021 and we’re working hard on it, that’s the 40th anniversary of Hi Infidelity so that’s going to be a big year for us, we’re already planning the tour for that year. And I’m thinking that the book should be finished by then. So we’re going to blow it out in 2021, for sure, but we are already doing that on this tour, too.”
For Cronin, as well as band co-founder and drummer Neal Doughty and longtime guitarist Bruce Hall — along with guitarist Dave Amato who joined the band in 1989 and drummer Bryan Hitt who came on board in 1990 — the incredible journey of REO Speedwagon continues. The band is still filling seats and rocking hard on their almost 50-plus year ride, and even at this stage, they want to stay on top of their game all as they enjoy this miraculous run that continues to take people back in time with their memorable music. They may be an older model truck like their namesake, but their rock and roll engine is running just fine, thank you.
“You keep trying to be a little bit better today than you were yesterday,” Cronin mused. “And you know, at the same time keeping a sense of humor about stuff. And we’ve been very, very fortunate.”
REO Speedwagon performs with special guest Charlie Farren on Tuesday September 24th at the Warner Theater 513 13th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets, click here.