This Car Still Drives
“Keep on Loving You.” “Take It on the Run.” “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” “Time for Me to Fly.” If what you want is a love ballad from the early 80s, all you really need to do is to crank up some REO. The dudes from Illinois knew how to put the heart in rock n’ roll and the hair in hair band, and they’ll be at the Foellinger Theatre Friday, May 27 at 8 p.m. as part of the venue’s summer concert series. Having reached the pinnacle of their fame in the early 80s, REO Speedwagon are perhaps the perfect act to satisfy today’s seemingly insatiable appetite for nostalgia. Their music is guaranteed to take you back to a simpler time of candles in windows on cold, dark winter nights and bringing ships into shore and throwing away the oars forever. Speaking of a simpler time, REO got their start in 1967 when Neal Doughty, then an electrical engineering student, met a young drummer, Alan Gratzer, at the University of Illinois. Doughty became one of Gratzer’s groupies, but his groupie status didn’t last long. Having taught himself how to play along to Beatles songs on his parent’s piano, Doughty was soon recruited to join a new band with Gratzer, bassist Mike Blair and guitarist and vocalist Joe Matt. Having christened themselves REO Speedwagon after a flatbed truck made popular by a certain Ransom E. Olds, these four college friends played fraternity parties and local clubs, cutting their teeth on low-paying gigs just like any other respectable young band with dreams of greatness. What set them apart from the usual weekend gear luggers and nightclub rats is that they actually achieved it. In 1971, REO Speedwagon signed with Epic records and soon put out their eponymous debut. Next came R.E.O/T.W.O (that’s seventies speak for “REO 2.0”), Ridin’ the Storm Out, Lost in a Dream, This Time We Mean It, REO, Live: You Get What You Play For, You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tune a Fish and Nine Lives. For nearly a decade, REO put out a new album every year, despite lineup upheavals and a lack of mainstream success. Such success would not elude them long. The early 80s witnessed REO’s magic moment. Having gone through a number of lead singers, guitarists and bassists, the lineup from 1977 to 1988 was steady, with Doughty and Gratzer being joined by Gary Richrath on lead guitar, Kevin Cronin on vocals and Bruce Hall on bass. This is the lineup that put out Hi Infidelity, REO’s most popular album, in 1980. Propelled by singles “Keep on Loving You,” “Take It on the Run,” “Don’t Let Him Go” and “In Your Letter,” Hi Infidelity held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard album chart for 15 weeks and went on to sell more than 10 million copies. It became the soundtrack of a generation. Soon REO’s music was everywhere, and no one was more surprised by the album’s overnight success than the band members themselves. In a January interview with Songwriter Universe, Cronin, who for a long time shared songwriting duties with Richrath, said that Hi Infidelity was the product of the band all going through tumult in their personal lives at the same time. That shared experience led to songs that cohere and communicate well with one another. “So I think that really helped for the album, that it felt like all the songs belonged together,” he said. “Back in the day of the album, that was very important. It was one of those albums which was definitely top-heavy with songs that people, to this day … they come to our concerts and we play at least five or six songs from Hi Infidelity every night. When we play those songs, you can just feel the energy in the room light up.” Fans will be happy to know that the version of REO Speedwagon coming to Fort Wayne will include Cronin on vocals, Doughty on keys and Hall on bass, as well as Dave Amato on guitar and Bryan Hitt on drums. (Gratzer left the band in 1989, and Richrath, the pen behind “Take it on the Run” and all of the Ridin’ the Storm Out album, died in September at the age of 65.) Known for their powerful live shows, REO Speedwagon are still selling out theaters across the country. Case in point, the Midland Theatre in Newark, Ohio and the Palace in Louisville, Kentucky. A reviewer had this to say about Cronin and company’s performance at the Palace: “The evening was spectacular; a classic REO Speedwagon show. The band seemed to be having such a great time and were all smiles the entire evening. Based on fan reactions after the show, everyone was more than pleased.” And of REO’s performance at Talking Stick Resort, another reviewer wrote: “The band sounded like a well-oiled machine. There is something to be said about a band who can go out and perform older material and still do it justice, and on tracks like ‘Time For Me to Fly’ and ‘Back On the Road Again,’ featuring bassist Bruce Hall on lead vocals, they did just that.” REO Speedwagon have clearly ridden the storm out, and they’ve emerged on the other side, still singing, still jamming, still rocking. Perhaps you’re harboring doubts that these dudes are still cool after all these years. Well, check this. The rapper Pitbull and pop sensation Enrique Iglesias teamed up this April and released “Messin’ Around,” which includes the now iconic earwormy “Take it on the Run” lyrics “heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around.” And the melody, which Speedwagon fanboy Pitbull freely sampled, is unmistakable. It’s pure REO. REO 2.0. So there you have it. REO Speedwagon the car might have expired long ago, but REO Speedwagon the band aren’t driving off into the sunset any time soon.