Judge Bill Gibron once musically altered a piece of tilapia.
If You're Tired of the Same Old Story, Turn Some Pages…
There is nothing wrong with being a journeymen rock act, an acknowledged everyday example of the medium's middle of the road backbone. You know the kind—formed forever and a day ago, with a constantly shifting alignment of old and new members. With a core group of "originals" still in the fold, the band betrays its age by releasing new (if otherwise indistinguishable) albums while hitting the road to remind everyone of its neo-nostalgic hits from years past. With age comes wisdom, a bit more business acumen, and a paunchy belly—or, God forbid, receding hairline—or two. While audiences tend to be overloaded with equally inflated boomers, there are smatterings of youngsters desperate for the days when music was actually made by live instruments and skilled professionals. In the end, everyone's happy—band, managers, accountants, publishers, and ex-wives. Though they made MTV weep with their cock rock ballads in the '80s, REO Speedwagon has been around since the late '60s. Still, they are less of a post-millennial viability and more an honored retro throwback, like Journey and Styx in both reverence and rock reality.
Soundstage: REO Speedwagon—Live in the Heartland is, in essence, a homecoming for the Illinois-based quintet. This 2007 appearance on Soundstage shows off Speedwagon Mach 4 (Or maybe 5). Still chugging alone and pimping their first new LP of material in nearly ten years, the combination of familiar faces with recent recruits offers a nice, neat 94-minute career overview. Here are the songs performed:
• "Find Your Own Way Home"—from the 2007 album
Find Your Own Way Home
To watch them live, one would never imagine that there is acrimony amongst the founding members of REO Speedwagon. Sure, influential and important components Gary Richrath and Alan Gratzer are nowhere to be seen (nor mentioned), and '80s replacements Dave Amato (lead guitar) and Brian Hitt (drums) are on hand to fill out the sound, but the performance here is all perky return-to-their-roots happiness. REO Speedwagon got its start in and around Chicago, and it's clear that lead singer Kevin Cronin loves the Windy City. During the traditional between song patter, the aging frontman really plays to the home crowd—lots of references to the Soundstage show and its previous incarnation. With a voice that occasionally betrays his late-in-years profile, Cronin has taken over as the most identifiable remaining constituent of "classic" R.E.O. Sure, Neal Doughty and Bruce Hall are still around, but the recognizable reediness of his voice is what fans of his '80s ballads will recall. The occasional rocker is still tossed in to keep things up-tempo, it's the slow piano-driven efforts that keep the crowd throwing old-school hand signs.
For the most part, the newer material is easily forgettable. Not awful or undistinguished, but frequently finding it difficult to measure up to what preceded it. Naturally, this is a hit-oriented mix, and when the identifiable restrains of "Take It On the Run" (with its notoriously cheesy opening line, "Heard it from a friend who/heard it from a friend who/heard it from another you've been messing around") or "Roll with the Changes" arrive, all is forgiven. While recent rumors have indicated that Cronin and the crew are less than pleased by Gary Richrath's solo return to the road, there's really no need for his old time glamour boy posturing. Amato handles all the aspects of his musical contributions quite well. Oddly enough, when Hall steps up to sing "Back on the Road Again," it seems strangely out of sync with everything that's come before. Perhaps the fact that Cronin has "controlled" the band for decades makes the acknowledgement of something like a group all the more difficult. Fans will definitely enjoy this thirty-five-year recap. For those merely curious or new to the Speedwagon base, it's hard to fathom a response. The music is good and the playing great. But like any storyline caught near the end, keeping connected may be difficult at best.
In yet another stellar Soundstage release, Koch Vision delivers a wonderful DVD package. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is amazing—sharp, detailed, loaded with color, and alive with electronic vibrancy. There are few defects here, the most noticeable being some minor flaring in the rear projection screens utilized onstage. Still, the high-definition picture is outstanding, as is the direction by Joe Thomas. Aurally, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix really emulates the in concert experience. While the audience plays a limited part in the overall sonic situation, the band blasts away from all the channels. It is very immersive. Finally, we are treated to a pair of decent extras. Cronin and Doughty sit down for a Q&A (filmed separately) which highlights the band's history. Both are very proud of their tenure and accomplishments. We are also treated to two numbers from REO Speedwagon: XM Artists Confidential. These new takes on "I Needed to Fall" and "Ridin' the Storm Out" are very good indeed.
In fact, the least thing one can say about REO Speedwagon: Live in the Heartland is that it represents accomplished artists doing what they do best. Of course, that they may merely be cogs in the continuing history of rock and roll is another matter all together.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Interviews with Kevin Cronin and Neal Doughty
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