REO Speedwagon proves it can still deliver power ballads of glory days

REO Speedwagon harks back to the days of big hair, power ballads and music videos.

Those heady ’80s days may be long gone but lead singer Kevin Cronin proved Thursday that REO can still deliver a classic rock punch before a sold-out Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center.

REO Speedwagon played before a packed house of adoring fans at The Sharon on Thursday night.

REO came to The Villages and played some old songs and spent time with some old friends – Villagers John and Karen Graham. Bob Graham, John’s brother, flew in from Champaign, Ill. He owned a bar there where REO played before hitting it big.

On stage, the Speedwagon crew – Bruce Hall, bass; Neal Doughty, keyboards; Dave Amato, guitar and Bryan Hitt on drums – covered all the big hits, from “Take It On the Run” to “Can’t Fight This Feeling” to “Keep On Loving You.”

Cronin, 67, dominates the stage. The big, flowing lion-mane hairdo has morphed into short white curls – but the voice remains strong.

Cronin, wearing yellow glasses and percolating with energy throughout the concert, talked about the ageless gift of music.

Kevin Cronin is the lead singer of REO Speedwagon and he dominated the stage during a concert at The Sharon on Thursday night.

“You guys, and us on stage, have been doing rock and roll for a long time and its rock and roll that keeps us young,” he said.

Maybe that’s why the old hits still sound fresh, enhanced by searing riffs of lead guitarist Amato. Early on, Cronin covered such REO staples as “Don’t’ Let Him Go,” “In Your Letter” and “Music Man.”

Then it came time to reminisce.

The band played one of its early songs, “Son of a Poor Man.” Cronin noted that it was written by the band’s late guitarist, Gary Richrath.

REO Speedwagon lead guitarist Dave Amato and keyboardist Neal Doughty added power to the sound of the popular band.

Cronin was in a nostalgic mood and talked of the band’s first trip to Florida in 1973.

“We were opening for the band Black Oak Arkansas,” Cronin said. “Back then, Disney World wasn’t even open. Orlando was a little town.

“I remember we played this little drive-in movie location. We set up our own equipment. About 75 people were there. All we had was one little number that was the big part of our setlist. That was the only song that anybody knew.

“I always felt that one day I would come back to Florida and play a setlist and the people would know every song. And here we are tonight.”

Cronin and the band ripped into a raucous version of “Take It On the Run,” a groundbreaking hit from the landmark album “Hi Infidelity.”

Villagers John and Karen Graham, left, are longtime REO Speedwagon fans. Bob Graham, right, is John’s brother and owned a bar where the band played before hitting it big.

Such music really hit home with the REO fans, especially the Graham family. They have known the band since the late 1960s.

“They would play (the Red Lion Inn in Champaign) and the place was packed whenever they showed up,” Bob Graham, one of the bar owners, said. “They were good and you just had the feeling they could make it big.”

John Graham got to know the band members back then and stayed in touch.

“They were nice guys then and they’re still nice,” he said, adding that he and Bob played golf with bass player Bruce Hall on Thursday. “He loves The Villages,” John Graham said.

REO Speedwagon helped John and Karen Graham get together. They have lived in The Villages for five years but met long before moving here.

Robin and George Rebusmen, of Leesburg, are big fans of REO Speedwagon and thoroughly enjoyed Thursday’s concert.

“We did some work together and I asked him what his favorite band was,” Karen said. “He said, ‘REO Speedwagon,’ and I told him that was my favorite band. You could say REO brought us together.”

They enjoyed seeing the show in their hometown.

“I’m just so thankful we can see bands like REO in The Villages,” John Graham said. “I hope we get more bands from the ’80s and ’90s in The Villages.”
Robin and George Rebusmen, of Leesburg, share that feeling.

“This is the music of our generation. I was listening to REO in high school and those songs still mean a lot to me,” Robin Rebusmen said.  “REO’s songs stay with you and become a part of you.”

REO Speedwagon fans have some fun posing by the stage in the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center before Thursday night’s show.

Nate Leslie, of Leesburg, opened the show. REO was looking for an opening act, said promoter Joe Bamford of Get Off the Bus Concerts. “It was a last-minute thing but we called Nate and he was able to do it.”

Leslie played keyboards and performed a lively opening set for 20 minutes. The highlight was a cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Part of the proceeds from the concert were donated to Habitat For Humanity Lake-Sumter.

Tony Violanti is a veteran journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.