R.E.O. Speedwagon: The Return of Rock 'n’ Roll Giants

R.E.O. Speedwagon: The Return of Rock 'n’ Roll Giants
Venues & Businesses
Show Me Center

Who: R.E.O. Speedwagon / Styx
What: classic-rock showcase
When: 2013-12-05
Before his exclusive interview with Nightlife really began, Bruce Hall of R.E.O. Speedwagon immediat
Leah Williams

Before his exclusive interview with Nightlife really began, Bruce Hall of R.E.O. Speedwagon immediately started in with a trip down memory lane.

“That’s near Carbondale, right?” he asked when bringing up the band’s concert Thursday, December 5 at the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau with fellow Midwestern rockers Styx. “We used to play around there all the time. It was part of the circuit of places we regularly played.... The circuit would include Champaign, Carbondale, Chicago, on over to Indiana.... We’ve always liked it there in Carbondale. We had some great times. And we’re looking forward to coming back.”

From there he told stories about gigs at now-defunct Carbondale venues Merlin’s and T.J. McFly’s. In fact, back in 1971, R.E.O., then a young bar band from Champaign, filmed a live-in-the-studio performance for WSIU that the station still occasionally reruns.

R.E.O. Speedwagon first formed in 1967 after Neal Doughty entered the electrical-engineering program at the University of Illinois in Champaign. He met Alan Gratzer his first night at the college and joined Gratzer’s band. Before long they, along with guitarist Joe Matt and bass player Mike Blair, departed to start a new group.

They took the name R.E.O. Speedwagon from a flatbed truck Doughty had studied in a transportation-history class. In their early days, the bandmates traveled from gig to gig with equipment shoved into a friend’s stationwagon. Several lineup changes took place in the 1970s, with the band hiring three different lead vocalists for each of their first three albums. Current frontman Kevin Cronin did not come on board until 1972. He left during recording sessions for the 1973 album Ridin the Storm Out and then come back three years later for the recording of R.E.O.

Before Hall joined the band in 1977, he had a feeling that he would be asked to join the lineup. Being from the same hometown had its advantages— Hall was able to attend shows and help make himself known to the band just in case the opportunity presented itself.

“They were a college band when I was in high school,” Hall said. “I just knew they were going to call me. We knew the same people, and I just knew it was going to happen. And then they called me.”

Hall joined the band right at the cusp of R.E.O.’s biggest successes. The band was starting to break into the top-forty charts.

“It just sort of happened like that,” Hall said. “We were all pretty optimistic at the time. We knew we had something. The first album I played on was You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish and I could tell then that it was going to be great.”

That record boasted two hits, "Roll with the Changes" and "Time for Me to Fly."

In 1980, Hi Infidelity became the group’s most commercially successful album, selling more than ten-million copies. The album included several hit singles: number one “Keep on Loving You,” “Take It on the Run,” “In Your Letter,” and “Don’t Let Him Go.”

The eighties saw continued success with the release of Good Trouble (1982) and Wheels Are Turnin (1984). The latter album ushered in one of the band’s most popular songs, the chart-topping power ballad “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

Changes in the music industry and the introduction of grunge and alternative music in the nineties saw waning support for R.E.O., and more lineup changes continued through the decade. But R.E.O. found new ways to market their material. A thirty-year anniversary deluxe edition of Hi Infidelity came out in 2010, and the band released an online videogame, Find Your Own Way Home, the first for causal gamers produced by a rock band.

The current tour with Styx is not the first time the two groups have teamed up. In 2000, both bands recorded a concert at the Riverport Amphitheater in Saint Louis (now the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater). The concert video was released as Arch Allies: Live at Riverport. In 2003, R.E.O. joined Styx and Journey for a tour.

Hall said his bandmates still write and record original songs on occasion. He explains that inspiration just happens at a moment’s notice.

“There’s no stopping it sometimes,” Hall said. “Sometimes you just have to do something with it. You have this music inside you, and you have to get it out. I’m writing, and I know Kevin [Cronin]’s writing. We are going to keep making music as long as we know how.”

Throughout a storied forty-plus-year career, R.E.O. Speedwagon has made one thing abundantly clear: From their first circuit days and trips to Carbondale to today, the band is best seen and appreciated live.

“We have always been a great live band,” Hall said. “Our strength is in our performance on stage in front of a crowd. There’s no doubt about that.”

For more information about R.E.O. Speedwagon, visit <http://www.speedwagon.com>.

who: R.E.O. Speedwagon / Styx

what: classic-rock showcase

where: Show Me Center

when: Thursday, December 5