I had to ask myself, “When you see a band at a venue like Red Rocks, isn’t everything after that a little disappointing?” Of course, I’m referring to an REO concert I attended this past summer at the famed Rocky Mountain arena. There are a few things about that show that made me seek out another REO performance. First, they shared stage time with Pat Benatar on that summer evening, so I was pretty sure it was an abbreviated set. And secondly, I was very impressed by them. I wanted to find out if they could still impress night after night. So, what I was hoping for as I packed the entire family in the car and headed 150 miles north to the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a nice long set brought to life by the tight unit of musicians that I saw less than six months ago.
As you drive through the downtown Milwaukee area, you are surrounded by classic architecture and a bustling city rich in history. Amidst the many marvels of yesteryear sits the Riverside Theater, which acted as a warm and welcoming old friend on an evening where the temperatures had frozen everything but the time. REO Speedwagon is a band that I remember listening to in the early 70’s, so being in this aged and elegant theater made it very easy to travel back to that time. I think everyone in attendance was hoping to be kicked back a few decades, right? I mean this is one of classic rock’s finest, and we were all hoping to see a vintage rock show that has aged like that proverbial fine wine.
The band took the stage and started to play the beginning rhythm of “Don’t Let Him Go,” the lead off track from their most successful record, Hi Infidelity. They continued walking that multi-platinum road by doing the first side of that record in its entirety. With strobe lights and a set of bright white steps inlaid with flood lights of changing colors, the band looked and sounded prepared and sharp. This would turn into a night of classics as the band ran through almost everything in their early hit catalog. We heard electrically charged versions of my fave, “Golden Country.” We heard great oldies like “Son Of A Poor Man,” “Like You Do,” and “157 Riverside Avenue,” as well. This was a show that ran about 45 minutes longer than the Red Rocks set, and it included some very special moments. Hearing frontman Kevin Cronin do a song called “Unfinished Poem” and their hit, “That Ain’t Love,” acoustically and without the rest of the band behind him was quite a treat. Also, the playfulness between all of the band members was clearly elevated, especially on “157 Riverside Avenue.” I think the combination of the improvisational tone of that particular song, and the fact that the band was playing close to their place of origin (Champaign, Illinois) made for an explosive dose of that stuff we like to call “Fun” (yeah, with a capital F).
I don’t think I really need to tell you that they played all the super hits like “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Time For Me To Fly,” “Roll With The Changes,” “Keep Pushin’, and ”Back On The Road Again,” as those are automatic in any REO set. I do need to tell you about the last song of this frigid evening in Milwaukee, though. It was a cover of the Shadows Of Knight song, “Gloria.” (Yes, Shadows Of Knight, not The Doors) As the opening chords of the song rang out, they sounded like AC/DC’s “Jailbreak.” They had incredible crunch, with a rhythmic backbeat that must’ve set the red velvet seats of the Riverside on fire because everyone was on their feet. And as I said in the Red Rocks review, Cronin’s voice might not be quite what it was in the 70’s and 80’s, although he still sounds impressive. But this is a guy that runs his concerts like a rock ‘n’ roll P.T. Barnum. The musicianship is better than ever, and the Fun never stops for both the band and its devoted audience. And yes, that's “Fun” with a capital F.