Keep on rollin'
At a glance
What: REO Speedwagon and Styx
Where: U of I Assembly Hall, Champaign
When: 7:30 p.m. March 17
Tickets: $24.50, $34.50 and $44.50
Box office number: (217) 333-5000
|The current lineup of Styx continues to play the group's hits.
REO Speedwagon still touring despite inevitable changes
By Dan Craft
CHAMPAIGN -- The man who penned that ode to adaptability, "Roll With the Changes," knows the score as well as anyone.
Especially when it comes to dodging life's curveballs and sucker punches.
Exhibit A in the life and changing times of REO Speedwagon's Kevin
Cronin, he cites a particular moment more than 30 years ago.
To be exact, 1972.
was the year when Cronin, a quiet young folk singer from the south side
of Chicago, accepted the offer to join up with a not-so-quiet young
The occasion was Cronin's very first gig
with REO, at Champaign's Red Lion Inn, site of many a Speedwagon
performance during that period.
"It was very scary
because I was coming into a band that was pretty well established,"
recalls Cronin. "I was the new guy, so that's always a little bit
Worse, "The other guys all were dressed
in their fancy clothes and tight pants and cool shirts -- and here was
me, this dork from Chicago with Hush Puppies and corduroy pants."
the perilous fashion gap, "It was a crash course in rock, and it was
fun and it was great. They had more experience than I did, but I
brought some song-writing to the party, some musicality that the band
didn't have before ..."
With REO's deep Central
Illinois moorings -- including a lead guitar player, Gary Richrath,
from Peoria -- it's not surprising that a lot of Cronin's early
memories are tied to the region's bar circuit.
that part of the circuit involving the infamous Red Lion Inns in
downtown Bloomington and, as noted, on the University of Illinois
campus in Champaign-Urbana, where the boys in the band attended school.
Though that era now seems like "another lifetime," some of Cronin's fondest recollections are imbedded there.
and his band-mates -- Richrath, keyboardist Neal Doughty, drummer Alan
Gratzer and bass player Gregg Philbin -- "were growing up and living
around the Midwest in a beat-up Chevy station wagon, sleeping three to
a hotel room and paying our dues.
"We had that solid foundation of the Midwest, and especially of Illinois."
if things started going badly elsewhere, "we'd always go, 'You know
what? We can still kill 'em in Illinois.' That gave us confidence and
kept us plugging away."
And, as noted, rolling with the changes.
the recording of 1973's seminal "Ridin' the Storm Out" album, Cronin
decided it was time to roll on and over some new changes.
was really more of a situation where I was a folk singer who really
hadn't had that much experience with rock," he says. "At the time, they
were really loud on stage, and it was hard for me to sing and hear
myself. I ended up having to yell so loud to hear myself that I hurt my
Fearing he was nearing burnout, Cronin
left REO in 1973. His album vocals were re-recorded by Michael Murphy.
His band-mates "didn't understand what I was going through -- they took
it that I just wasn't trying, when all I wanted to do was save my
Three years later, Cronin responded to a
call from the band, now based in Los Angeles. Murphy had quit over
creative differences. Cronin was persuaded to rejoin, bringing with him
the soon-to-be-hit single "Keep Pushin'," included on the in-progress
The old folk singer/rock singer fears
disappeared, and Cronin has been on board since, writing REO standards
like "Keep On Loving You," the band's first-ever No. 1 single, from the
band's touchstone year and album, 1981's "Hi Infidelity."
the band's membership continued to evolve, the most famous defection
came in the late '80s, when it was Richrath's turn to bid the band
"The creative tension between Gary and me was
part of what made the band work," Cronin says. "That friction caused
sparks and made records. Gary's aggressive guitar and my folk songs
created the REO sound. It was a good relationship for a long time. But,
as often happens when there's friction for a long time, sometimes you
rub the sandpaper together long enough and it gets smooth. The friction
goes away. And that's what happened to our relationship. We had a great
The last time the two crossed paths was for a VH1 "Behind the Music" segment on the band several years ago. But it was fleeting.
always expected he (Gary) would end up coming back after dealing with
his personal issues, kind of like I did," Cronin adds. "That never
happened. And now I talk to him rarely, unfortunately."
the REO old guard is Doughty and Cronin. Next in line: bass guitarist
Bruce Hall, who joined in 1978. The "new" kids on the block: drummer
Bryant Hill and lead guitarist Dave Amato, who joined around 1990.
Tooth be told, rivalry becomes friendship
By Dan Craft
Young, lead guitarist of Styx, and Kevin Cronin, lead singer of REO
Speedwagon, have a whole lot in common -- and not just the fact that
they'll be sharing Assembly Hall stage space in Champaign on St.
Patty's Day (that's 7:30 p.m. March 17, for the holiday-impaired).
the day when GO! interviewed Cronin, he had just spent four hours in a
dentist's chair, sucking in nitrous oxide. He missed his original
interview time as a result of the unexpected oral endurance test.
very next day, when Young called The Pantagraph for his interview, the
guitarist's mouth was still partially paralyzed and his speech rendered
slightly slurpy by the Novocain injection he'd received ... at the
But then, these twin rock musician dental episodes somehow make perfect sense.
Both Cronin and Young grew up, Young estimates, around two miles from each other on the south side of Chicago.
Both became singers in rock bands forged in the mid-'70s and hitting their peaks in the early '80s.
Both singers' bands suffered the major defection of a key creative component.
Both men have endured as mild-mannered, well-adjusted rockers well into what Young calls "advanced middle age."
And they've both been playing on concert tours together regularly since the turn of the century.
Young can remember a time when the idea of Styx and REO sharing a stage would have been unthinkable.
Or at least not pretty.
"Our relationship was one of competition ... battling for No. 1," Young readily admits.
all came to a head in 1981, when REO's "Hi Infidelity" and Styx's
"Paradise Theater" were duking it out for supremacy on sales charts and
radio play lists.
The two big mainstream pop-rock
bands of the moment were both from Illinois -- one from Chicagoland,
one from down lower -- and may the best Midwestern sensibility win.
Today, nearly 25 years later, Young likens the old rivalry to that between, say Muhammed Ali and George Foreman.
walk 20 years down the road of life and look around and you're the only
people left who saw the world from that unique vantage point," Young
muses. "Now you have certain things in common that you have with no one
The current tour is, understandably, a 50-50
affair, he notes, with the bands sharing equal billing, equal time on
stage and taking turns with the closing number.
as REO has its Gary Richrath departure (see accompanying story), Styx
will forever be burdened with its Dennis DeYoung factor.
The famously thorny relationship -- which saw DeYoung leave in the '80s, then return briefly in the mid '90s -- remains prickly.
"I haven't spoken to Dennis since 1999," admits Young.
recalls hearing a recent interview with DeYoung in which the ex-Styx
player was quoted as saying, "I don't understand why those guys hate me
so much ..."
Young says, "I don't hate Dennis. We've
had some incredible experiences together. But this is like a team
sport, and if the team wants to go one way and there's one player who
doesn't -- even if it's the guy who sang most of the hit singles -- at
a certain point in time you have to make choices."
bottom line: "Tommy (Shaw) and I made the choice with Chuck (Panazzo)
that Dennis had priorities that were not in the right place as far as
we were concerned."
And so life, and Styx, have gone
on, with the current old-guard lineup of Young, Shaw and Panazzo
(brother of late Styx drummer John, who died from alcohol-related
complications in 1996). More recent arrivals: drummer Todd Sucherman,
who joined in 1996; singer Lawrence Gowan, who joined in 1999; and bass
player Ricky Phillips, who joined in 2003.
proof that Styx still matters to a lot of people: the band's 2004 cover
version of the Beatles' "I Am a Walrus" became Styx's biggest radio hit
in years (via classic rock stations) ... a forthcoming album of similar
cover versions of the band's favorite rock songs is due soon ... the
Styx classic "Rendezvous" was selected by Brad Pitt for use in his
high-profile Super Bowl commercial for Heineken beer ... and people are
still queuing up across the land to see those bitter rivals from a
quarter century ago share a 50-50 love fest.
Not to mention some newly refurbished teeth.