“When I look down the tour itinerary and see towns like Springfield and Champaign, the word that immediately comes to mind is ‘home,” says REO Speedwagon’s lead singer Kevin Cronin, 59, with an audible lump in his throat. “I know that probably seems hackneyed but its absolutely, 100 percent, true. The Beatles had the Cavern Club in Liverpool, Bruce Springsteen has Asbury Park and we have Rockford, Springfield, Bloomington....”
Although REO was formed in Champaign-Urbana in 1967, Evanston native Cronin didn’t join the band full-time until 1976, four years before the chart-dominating mega-success of the Hi Infidelity LP and its inescapable number one hit single “Keep On Loving You.” That period saw the band – which is playing at the Prairie Capital Convention Center on Thursday, Feb. 25 – touring tirelessly and performing in venues large and small throughout central Illinois, building a dedicated following that allowed this local band to truly make good.
“Playing in central Illinois is definitely a different experience from playing on the East Coast or overseas, for example,” says Cronin. “Everywhere else there’s this sense of a little bit of challenge from the crowd, kind of a ‘show us what you got’ attitude. But coming back to Illinois, you just know it’s going to be a fun show. There are people in the audience who remember you from, you know, 35 years ago or more and they are totally rooting for you in a way that just isn’t possible in those other places. It’s really the difference between a home game and an away game. You can have a good game in another town, but there’s nothing like that hometown crowd who have known you their whole lives.”
Of course things were not always this way.
“I remember REO playing at the Christian County fairgrounds in Taylorville, sometime in the very early ‘70s,” recalls former Pana resident Chris Durbin. “I don’t remember too much about it. There were a few local bands at that time that everyone used to go see, like Bear Creek Road, who did covers of Cream and Hendrix — their guitar player, Barry Worker, is still kind of a local legend there. REO was really just some out-of-town band then, nobody in the area cared about them very much. I do remember being impressed as a kid because their keyboard player [Neal Doughty] had a Hammond B-3 Organ with a Leslie cabinet and that spinning cone on top of it looked really cool to me as a kid.”
Local songwriter (and IT “Now Playing” columnist) Tom Irwin also encountered REO during their era as a local act.
“I was in [hard rock band] Zeus at the time,” muses Irwin, “which makes it probably ‘75 or ‘76. I believe REO had already released ‘Riding the Storm Out’ but I could be mistaken about that. They were playing somewhere in downtown Springfield, it might have been the St. Nicholas Ballroom. That or the Armory. Anyway, [Zeus guitarist] Dooley and I somehow made it up to their hotel room. We had brought some Wahaqan pot with us, which was reputed to be a very potent Mexican strain, and that was our ticket in. Gary Richrath was kind of a dick to us, I remember him asking if we had brought any girls along and being kind of, very, dismissive. They made us leave before very long and they kept the Wahaqan weed as tribute, but before that I do remember Kevin Cronin getting out an acoustic guitar and playing us a song called ‘Music Man,’ which, if I’m not mistaken, was all about the trials and tribulations of living your life as a... music man.”
Cronin certainly knows a lot about the subject. Like so many other musicians of his generation it all started with the Beatles.
“As a kid, music was my savior,” recalls Cronin, who graduated from Brother Rice High School in Chicago. “I was not a gifted athlete, even though I loved to play. But when I started music and guitar lessons, I discovered it was not just something I could do but that I was actually good at. And when I first saw the Beatles on TV when I was in junior high, it was a done deal. They were doing exactly what I wanted to do. They were writing songs and playing songs and getting this huge reaction from people. After that, I was singularly motivated. Luckily, it was organic: I was very focused and I was getting a very positive response. Playing music became more than something I wanted to do, I actually needed it to survive.”
These days, late-night TV viewers might be most familiar with Kevin Cronin from having seen him hosting the heavy-rotation infomercial advertising Time-Life’s Ultimate Rock Ballads, a 9-disc boxed set (“153 Unforgettable Hits!”). But don’t assume that this means Cronin is suspended in the amber of music past.
“I actually know people my age who have kind of shut down and started losing the vibe as time goes by and I think that’s really terrible,” he says. “Music will continue to evolve and I’m always curious about what will come next up the pike. I really like the Foo Fighters, who I feel have kind of continued the tradition we were part of. Also the Kings of Leon have really good songs and have that Midwestern thing that seems really familiar and really fresh at the same time. I also think that John Mayer’s songwriting is really coming to full bloom on his new album.
“Someone told me that there’s a video of Keith Urban doing a version of ‘Keep On Loving You’ making the rounds on YouTube, which I find very flattering. Keith is a very talented musician and I think that’s a great honor.”
While their impressive backlog of hits remains REO’s bread and butter, Cronin continues to write new material. “I just finished a new song last week,” he affirms. “It’s just the greatest feeling when you get just the right word, the right rhyme, the perfect chord change to encapsulate exactly what you’re feeling. There’s nothing like it, it’s just the purest part of my being.”
REO has also kept abreast of current trends in marketing and technology. Just this past December, the band released a video game called “Find Your Own Way Home.” Perhaps best described as a First Person Lounger (or “Casual Game” according to the promotional materials) the game allows REO fans to experience an amazing fantasy world where collecting Wonka-esque golden ticket gets you backstage to meet virtual members of Champaign’s favorite sons. Take that, James Cameron!
“It’s actually pretty fun, kind of addictive,” Cronin says of the game. “I mean, you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to win or anything. But I was pleased to see that my avatar is quite handsome, quite dashing,” he laughs. “I also appreciate the fact that in the storyline of the game I’m missing on my private yacht in Bora Bora.” When it is suggested that this sounds like as much fantasy-fulfillment for the singer himself as for the fan at home, he lets out a hoot. “It’s total fantasy fulfillment for me!”
Which is saying something, coming from a man whose dreams have mostly come true.
“I realize that I am extremely privileged,” he says. “I mean, just the honor of getting to go out to the mound at Wrigley Field with my 8-year-old twins and throw out the opening pitch [in June of 2008] was just mindblowing, as a lifelong Cubs fan. Knowing that our music can provide joy, escape and satisfaction to so many people is a great feeling and I never lose sight of that. I am so grateful for my success. I am very, very fortunate.”
Of course, two decades have now passed between REOs chart-dominating heyday and now, including a precipitous fall from mass popularity and the departure of band founder Richrath in 1989. However, this doesn’t mean that REO has spent the intervening decades coasting on its status as Classic Rock Royalty.
“I realize that a lot of the folks who come out to see us are there for nostalgic reasons,” says Cronin. “They come expecting the music to bring them back to their high school days, college days or whatever. And I am so glad to perform that service for them. But at the same time, I can honestly say that as a band we are still performing on the same level as we were back then, if not higher. My greatest satisfaction is seeing people leave the auditorium with their expectations exceeded. We realize people are spending their hard-earned money to come and see us and it’s good to hear people say, you know, ‘wow, that was worth it.’”
He chuckles with pride. “We still kick ass on a pretty high level.”
REO Speedwagon will perform along with Styx and .38 Special from 7 p.m. to 12 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25. Ticket prices range from $39-$59.
Scott Faingold was a founding member of Springfield alternative rock band Backwards Day. He is former Assistant Music Section Editor for the Houston Press and author of the novel Kennel Cough. This his first story for IT since 1989.