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Review: Phoenix crowd can’t fight feeling as Chicago Speedwagon makes them smile

REO Speedwagon in concert, August 2, 2014, Phoenix, AZ
REO Speedwagon in concert, August 2, 2014, Phoenix, AZ
Becky Hansen

Chicago and REO Speedwagon in concert, August 2, 2014, Phoenix, AZ

Rating:
Star5
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One night, two bands, three sets, unlimited memories. Sounds like a tag line dreamed up by the advertising executives from “Mad Men.” Saturday night, August 2, 2014 at Comerica Theatre in Phoenix, two bands, REO Speedwagon and Chicago, each played their own sets and then combined their bands for an encore. As good as REO Speedwagon and Chicago were individually, it was Chicago Speedwagon that brought the house down.

Chicago in concert, August 2, 2014, Phoenix, AZ
Becky Hansen

Both REO Speedwagon and Chicago were formed in 1967, both hail from Illinois and both bands were even with the same record company. Yet, for the last forty seven years, they have never toured together. They say good things come to those that wait. Although this was one heck of a long wait, it was worth it. Both bands appeared rejuvenated and that was even before they combined for their encore.

REO Speedwagon got the night rolling with their just shy of sixty minutes set. Drummer Bryan Hitt pounded out the beginning to “Don’t Let Him Go” and the band was off and running. Lead singer and often times, rhythm guitarist, Kevin Cronin, had command of his vocals from the beginning. Flanked on one side by long time bass player Bruce Hall and on the other side by REO’s lead guitarist since 1989, Dave Amato, Cronin and company, which also included group founder, Neal Doughty, towards the back of the stage on keyboards, were full of energy, even if the audience was not.

If you’ve seen REO Speedwagon live within the last couple of years, you may have been familiar with the set list. “Music Man,” “Take It on the Run,” and “Keep Pushin,’ followed the opening song. But any familiarity with what might be coming didn’t detract from the performance. REO was on top of their game all night long with Cronin acting as the exuberant host.

The audience may have been sitting down more than standing up for REO Speedwagon’s set, but that was no indication of their enjoyment level. Smiles crossed many faces in the crowd throughout the night and they loudly sang the chorus of songs such as “Take It on the Run” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

The latter song was introduced by Cronin first taking a mid-concert phone call from his wife. Although he ignored her pleas to go out and bring some half and half creamer on his way home, it showed that REO Speedwagon is about having fun, even if it’s in just presenting a song.

Watching bassist Bruce Hall was a pure delight. Not only does he drive forward the REO sound with his playing, but his interaction with fellow band members, be it back to back or forehead to forehead, was a joy to watch. Amato was equally enthralling. He was constantly throwing down blazing guitar solos, one that even earned a “that was nice,” by Hall.

Give REO credit for trying out newer material as they did with “Whipping Boy.” The rocker may have lacked the familiarity of their hits, but it was a worthy inclusion into their set. It’s always a pleasure to see old bands try out and succeed with new material.

The REO Speedwagon portion of the night ended on a high with “Time For Me To Fly” and the “REO Speedwagon onslaught,” that is “Back on the Road Again.” Hall took over the lead vocals for the final song, one that he penned back in 1979. “Back on the Road Again” still remains the best argument against the thinking that REO Speedwagon is a power ballad band. You need to check to see if your fillings are still in your teeth after that number.

It only took 20 minutes for the stage to be set up for Chicago, who came out blasting with “Introduction” to start their seventy minute set. Chicago founder, keyboardist Robert Lamm, handled lead vocals for the song, taking center stage with his keytar. The song served as one might expect, introducing the audience to the playing styles of the band members.

The horn section of Lee Loughnane on trumpet, Ray Herrmann, filing in this night for Walter Parazaider, on saxophone and flute and the always active James Pankow on trombone were precise all night long. Guitarist Keith Howland, who has been with the band almost twenty years, aptly handled the long shadow original Chicago guitarist Terry Kath casts on Chicago’s early songs.

For those that somehow might not know Chicago from their first album, the collection of songs known as “Ballet For a Girl In Buchannon,” the Pankow written suite that includes “Make Me Smile,” and “Colour My World,” is the work that defines Chicago. As it seems to always be live, the song was performed to perfection. “Colour My World,” had some couples dancing with Herrmann receiving a standing ovation for his solo flute work. There was no shortage of air drummers who tried to follow drummer Tris Imboden’s lead into “Now More Than Ever.”

If “Make Me Smile,” defines the Chicago of old, then nothing can show better what the band is capable of today than the song “Now,” off their latest album, the you need to add this to your Chicago collection, “Now (Chicago XXXVI),” which was released just last month. “Now,” the song, has a late 1970’s Chicago feel to it, with bassist Jason Scheff’s singing now becoming the signature of Chicago’s vocals. The majority of the audience may have never heard the song before but it didn’t stop them swaying with the melody.

A pair of hits off of Chicago 17, “Hard Habit To Break” and “You’re The Inspiration” followed. Again Scheff’s vocals were stellar and along with the vocals from keyboard player Lou Pardini, the efforts earned post song standing ovations.

Drummer Tris Imboden and percussionist Walfredo Reyes, Jr. squared off during “I’m A Man,” each showing their talents on their kits. The smiles emitting from each of the drummers as they tried to outdo one another spilled over into the audience.

Throughout Chicago’s performance, it appeared that the older members of Chicago, Pankow, Loughnane and Lamm were enjoying it more than the newer members. Despite having played live for six decades, these three exhibited an enthusiasm as if performing was brand new.

After a few more hits, it took “Get Away,” the song that follows “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” to get the audience up and clapping along. Chicago’s final song, “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” kept up the audience momentum.

If REO Speedwagon served up the evening’s tasty appetizer, which was followed by Chicago’s succulent main course, then the combination of the two bands performing as one was a mouth-watering, explosion of flavor dessert that you wished would last forever. When both bands took the stage as one, it was as if an entirely new concert had begun.

It only took the stage crew about two minutes to set up the stage before drummers, Bryan Hitt and Tris Imboden, now both drum sets side by side, began pounding away. The trio of Cronin, Scheff and Howland paraded onstage from one side as the procession of Lamm, Hall and Amato arrived from the other. Horns, Loughnane , Herrmann and Pankow were positioned on the drummer’s level and Doughty was on keyboards, still in his traditional back of the stage spot.

For the next thirty minutes, it was one jaw dropping moment after another. Although it was a three ring circus, there was no ringmaster. Cronin, Scheff, Lamm and Pardini each took a turn at lead vocals, sometimes just for a line or two of each song. Howland and Amato fired off guitar solos that were many times played in unison. Hall was all over the stage, switching between bass and acoustic guitar, not afraid to engage fellow bass player Scheff at times. You didn’t know where to look, but no matter where you did, you saw a talented musician having the time of their life.

The song selections alternated between an REO Speedwagon hit and a Chicago hit. REO’s “Ridin’ the Storm Out” was countered with Chicago’s “Free.” During the Chicago number, a large American flag became the backdrop to the stage. It was fitting. REO Speedwagon and Chicago are about as All-American as you can get.

Chicago’s horn section brought a never before heard fullness to REO’s “Keep on Lovin’ You.” Hearing Cronin sing Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” gave new life to the classic song.

It’s hard to believe that the energy of a live version of REO’s “Roll with the Changes,” can be improved upon but remarkably, it was. With the crowd eagerly singing along, Cronin and Lamm exchanged vocals and Howland and Amato again went at it on guitar. Pankow tried his best to get Hall and his long locks to head bang. It was brilliant organized chaos.

The all too short experiment of Chicago Speedwagon ended with Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” The song was treated with the same frenzy, both on stage and in the audience, that the previous five selections had garnered. It was a delight to hear the twist the members of REO Speedwagon could put on the song.

Maybe the reason behind both bands appearing to have so much fun together was because the Phoenix show was only the third stop in the REO Speedwagon/Chicago month long tour. After all, anything new is usually always exciting.

But there seemed to be a respect both groups had for the other’s works. Those that were performing it for the first time were treating it as an honor to be included on the other group’s songs. Those that had performed a song thousands of times were thrilled to have new blood give their interpretation of the song.

For fans of REO Speedwagon and Chicago, seeing each group alone would have been a great night. But if you’re a fan of both groups, the last 30 minutes of the show were spine tingling. It’s been a long wait. Long live Chicago Speedwagon.

REO Speedwagon Set List: Don’t Let Him Go | Music Man | Take It on the Run | Keep Pushin’ | Can’t Fight This Feeling | That Ain’t Love | Tough Guys | Whipping Boy | Time For Me To Fly | Back on the Road Again

Chicago Set List: Introduction| Ballet For a Girl In Buchannon a) Make Me Smile; b) So Much To Say, So Much To Give; c) Anxiety’s Moment; d) West Virginia Fantasies; e) Colour My World; f) To Be Free; g) Now More Than Ever | Now | Hard Habit To Break | You’re The Inspiration | Beginnings | I’m A Man | Street Player | Just You ‘N’ Me | Saturday In The Park | Hard To Say I’m Sorry/Get Away | Feelin’ Stronger Every Day

Chicago & REO Speedwagon Together Set List: | Ridin’ the Storm Out | Free | Keep on Lovin’ You | Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? | Roll With The Changes | 25 Or 6 To 4 |