Emerging from Group Chaos: REO Speedwagon, March 13 at the Adler Theatre Print
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 12 March 2008 02:42

Kevin CroninREO Speedwagon lead singer and primary songwriter Kevin Cronin said the band spent more than three years making Find Your Own Way Home, which came out last year. "There was no pressure to release it sooner," he said last week. "There was no record company, no contract, none of that bullshit. It was strictly a labor of love on our part."

After 41 years, REO Speedwagon - which will be performing at the Adler Theatre on Thursday - could certainly be forgiven for touring behind their hits (particularly their ubiquitous power ballads) from the late '70s and early '80s rather than new material.

That certainly seemed likely, as before last year the band's more recent studio album was Building the Bridge, from 1996.

But Cronin, who first joined the band in 1972 and has been with it continuously since 1976, said there's still a fire in REO: "We're not done yet. We're still chasing this thing for a while."

And he said he believes strongly in the Find Your Own Way Home. "I can't just let his go," he said. "I feel like there's too much power in these songs to let it become a piece of the past just yet."

Cronin's not unrealistic about this. He laughs when asked about sales for the new record. "That's a whole other story," he said. While 1980's Hi Infidelity has sold 10 million copies, Find Your Own Way Home has sold roughly 75,000. "If you would have asked me 10 years ago, I would have been embarrassed to say that," the singer conceded. "But nowadays ... that's not bad."

The All Music Guide was relatively enthusiastic about the record, saying: "If not all the songs are as memorable as ... their classic-rock hits from the '70s and '80s, they're nevertheless stronger and harder than anything they've done in the last 20 years, and they provide a good vehicle to showcase this re-energized, back-to-basics lineup of REO Speedwagon."

"My goal was to make an LP," Cronin said, recalling the days of album-oriented rock in an age of single-song downloads. "I'm a firm believer in the LP as an art form. ... I was determined to not release this record until we all felt that we had a cohesive piece of music that started from the first song, and there was a thread that went through it until the very last song."

REO SpeedwagonThe album was born out of "group chaos," Cronin said, as everybody in the quintet except drummer Brian Hitt dealt with midlife and relationship crises - divorces, separations, and break-ups. "It seemed that the shit was hitting the fan for everyone right around the same time," he said. "A pretty rocky time for everyone. ... There was a lot of reshuffling of the deck ... which makes for not a lot of fun as an individual but it definitely is fertile ground for songwriting and getting creative juices going. ...

"The band really bonded. I started writing these songs, and suddenly the other guys were really relating to what I was writing about. ... Our bus was like the Dr. Phil show for a while there. ... It got to the point that even the crew guys ... they're talking about their relationships and their marriages.

"I guess it's something everyone needed."

Although this isn't the "classic" REO lineup with drummer Alan Gratzer and guitarist Gary Richrath - who both left in 1989 - Cronin was quick to defend the band's current incarnation.

"If you look at this history of our band, the present lineup has the most seniority of any lineup in the history of the group," he said. "Which is kind of odd."

Cronin said that the band's "autobiography" - a group-directed box set - could certainly bring Gratzer back into the fold, at least in his capacity as the band's unofficial historian. Cronin recently found, in REO's manager's garage, "the holy grail of REO Speedwagon - the actual demo tapes that we recorded that ended up becoming the Hi Infidelity record," he said. He added that those recordings - from three days in the studio - represent between 60 and 75 percent of the final album, and would be the cornerstone of any box set.

"I was the guy who listened to this demo tape and told everybody, ‘Hey guys, we already got it. The record's already here.' And everyone told me I was crazy. They were like, ‘No. That's a demo. The smell of puke was so strong in that studio that this demo tape probably stinks.'"

While Cronin said he's still friends with Gratzer - who is starting to compile material for that ultimate REO compilation - he suggested that his relationship with Richman can't be salvaged.

But Cronin sounded perfectly content soldiering on with the current REO.

And he wasn't afraid to show off what he's learned in more than 30 years with the band.

Cronin boasted that he could name all four Quad Cities, and I asked him whether he could name all five. "Oooh. There's five? Oh, shit," he said. "Maybe I can stump [Styx's] Tommy Shaw the next time I see him."


REO Speedwagon will perform on Thursday, March 13, at the Adler Theatre in downtown Davenport. The show starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets range from $35.50 to $47.50.