Live in the Heartland
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
rom the time Elvis strolled into Sun Studios until the early-to-mid ‘70s, rock & roll was something that was supposed to make you cool. Strap on a guitar, turn up the volume, and – like Dobie Gray said – you were in with the in crowd. Eventually, though, rock grew big enough to develop its own internal social strata, and by the time the ‘70s ended, there were a number of platinum-selling bands who took pride in being terribly uncool. Styx, Boston, and Kansas were charter members of this group, but no band ever managed to be as simultaneously unfashionable and successful as REO Speedwagon.
And guess what? Two decades after their last hit, the Speedwagon is still around. To twist a phrase from one of their early album titles, you can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish – and you can stop buying REO records, but you can’t make them go away. This DVD, recorded during the band’s tour in support of its most recent release, the Wal-Mart exclusive Find Your Own Way Home, finds them celebrating their 35th anniversary as a recording act – impressive by any standard, but when you stop to consider that few people outside the Midwest ever copped to owning an REO Speedwagon record even when albums like Hi Fidelity were selling by the truckload, it’s actually sort of miraculous.
Especially when you take the Cronin Factor into account. His songwriting may or may not have saved REO Speedwagon from perpetual bar-band obscurity, but there are few frontmen in the history of rock & roll who have been more annoying than Kevin Cronin. It isn’t any one thing, either – even if you took away his grating vocal tics, like the way he insists on dragging out each “r” for a bar and a half, you’d still be left with a squeaky-voiced singer who looks like he was molded to life out of Liberace’s left testicle. Even during the high-pitched ‘80s, when seemingly every rock singer sounded like he had a rubber band around his nuts, Cronin was the only one who made you wonder if he’d lose in a slap fight against Air Supply’s Russell Hitchcock.
Here’s the bad news, then: the Kevin Cronin of 2008 is every bit as irritating as the Kevin Cronin of 1981, and now he’s got short blond hair and a shirt that looks like Jackson Pollock barfed on it to add to the overall effect. To watch him mincing around the stage during this set is to continually marvel at the fact that this band – this very good rock band, a group of moderate-to-hard-rocking Midwesterners that includes Bryan Hitt, the drummer with the awesomest name in all of rock & roll – managed to sell many millions of albums despite playing behind a man whose idea of striking a rockin’ pose is to place a hand on a jutted-out hip and point at the audience like Carson Kressley spotting white pants after Labor Day.
And yet, even despite all this, watching “Live in the Heartland,” you can’t help but admire REO’s chops. Guitarist Dave Amato tosses picks into the audience and rocks a low-slung double-neck guitar like it’s 1985, bassist Bruce Hall still shouts a mean lead vocal during “Back On the Road Again,” and keyboard player Neal Doughty still stays as far from Cronin’s silly antics as possible while still sharing a stage. And give the band credit, too – they had the guts to mix in some new material with the old hits, giving the DVD a pleasantly broad cross-section between “Find Your Own Way Home” and – shudder – “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” The folks in the crowd look like they’re having a great time, and it’s easy to understand why; for one thing, the tickets were probably free, and for another, this is a group of consummate musicians that knows how to entertain an audience. Give ‘em one star for longevity, one for having the good sense to put the bass player in front of the microphone for a song, and one for almost – almost – overpowering the strong scent of Velveeta emanating from center stage.