Live Rock: REO Speedwagon, Rick Springfield, and Art Alexakis at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

Though they followed different paths to get there, both REO Speedwagon and Rick Springfield soared to success in the ‘80’s.   Most young people were hugely drawn to rock and roll then, and bands could routinely reach a wide audience rocking in America. But the complexion of popular music has obviously changed quite a bit two decades into the new millennium. On Saturday night, many who were fans in the ‘80’s, and quite a few who weren’t around yet, came out to the Greek Theatre in numbers to pay homage to these two acts.   On this night their performances offered a testimonial to the idea that you can rock convincingly for much longer into life than we may have once imagined.

REO Speedwagon were the headliners on Saturday night and their set was a polished affair — a long string of popular songs that did not disappoint.   Their stage was an elegantly streamlined, spartan design of levels, platforms, and lights.  The lights were small, digital, vivid, and beautifully integrated into the structure of the risers and amp racks.   REO are a dyed in the wool classic rock outfit featuring Kevin Cronin on vocals/rhythm guitar/piano, Bruce Hall on bass, Dave Amato on lead guitar, original member Neil Doughty on keys, and drummer Bryan Hitt.  They favor Gibson and Fender guitars, Marshall amps, a double bass drum kit, and keyboard-wise they rely on a grand piano and a Hammond B-3 organ.  This sound combo is hard to improve upon.

REO Speedwagon

Opening with “Don’t Let Him Go” with its Bo Diddley beat, the band charged through several more hits from the Hi-Infidelity album including “Take it on the Run,” “Heard It From a Friend,” and “Keep on Loving You.”  Later they moved on to different hits like “Roll With the Changes,” and “Time For Me to Fly.” It seemed as though every other person knew the words and was singing along to REO’s ubiquitous radio hits.

In their day these songs were crafted to be sung along to with the car radio. They are simple songs that feature beautiful harmonies, thick layered lead guitars, beefy rhythm guitar, and of course the Hammond organ tying it all together.  It should be noted, however, that the bass sound was probably a little too skewed toward the low end.  Bruce Hall played bass beautifully all night but the treble and the high end of his bass sound were lost in the mix.   Otherwise, REO had a superb rock and roll sound that was fat but still gave all of its elements a lot of room to sway and to breathe.

Over a 40 year career that began in the dorms of the University of Illinois, REO have built up an impressive catalogue of hits and FM staples.   The show Saturday night was billed as a celebration of the 30th Anniversary of their Hi Infidelity album, which dominated the AM and FM waves in 1981 and made them superstars. On Hi Infidelity,  the band really found their identity and their career jelled.  At the time and over the passing years, it also established a degree of separation between them and the harder rocking community.

As good as a song like “Rough Guys” sounded — about a girl who doesn’t go for the rough guys — it ultimately came across as lightweight and rather bland, re-identifying REO as a pop phenomenon.  At the time of the song’s release, preppy was a national style sensation and the song hit in the right place at the right time.  Over the years, the sentiment just sounds middle of the road and not all that rockin’.  The rock and roll arena has, of course, always been a safe haven for the whole spectrum of rough personalities, fans and performers alike.

On Saturday, it was interesting to just step back a bit from the spectacle and watch singer Kevin Cronin.  Not exactly a rough guy himself, the man is a curious study at the age of 59.  Tanned to the max, and sporting a lot of thick but short bleached blonde hair (he had a brown mullet back in the day), he could have come straight to the Greek from a day of boogie boarding.  He ran giddily around the stage with the winsome mannerisms of a 12-year old kid on a middle school basketball court.   You could really see it in the way he ran and then grinningly delivered another verse of another hit song.   Onstage, he was the rock star next door.  One cannot be sure why he chose to wear silver jeans onstage Saturday, but it seemed to work with his hair and the stage setup.

On a night with a definite theme of nearly 60-year old men aging gracefully, perhaps the most graceful of the whole bunch was REO’s bassist Bruce Hall.   Hall has been in the band since 1978.  He still has long, perfect white hair and is in great shape.   Moreover, he sang harmony vocals like a bird to achieve the trademark REO chorus sound, and played a very smooth walking style of bass guitar.  He, like the rest of the band, made it look so easy.

Rick Springfield’s set began just before sundown with a montage of film that blended a little too perfectly with the video snippets of upcoming acts at the Greek.   The show had begun.   The band walked on and plugged in, a roadie (er, guitar tech) held a shiny black guitar for the star to don like a dinner jacket.   And away we went.   From hits like “Affair of the Heart,” to “Jesse’s Girl,” to “Human Touch,” to a cover of Sammy Hagar’s “I’ve Done Everything For You,” the band was poppin’ tight and needed to be.  Springfield’s songs are busy up-tempo pop arrangements that demand to be played vigorously, crisply and with a lot of bottom end.   The bottom end is noteworthy because in the ‘80’s, five string bass guitars had not yet come to prominence.    On Saturday, bassist Matt Bissonette rumbled smoothly through the changes on an orange five stringer, providing a booming foundation with drummer Rodger Carter and guitarist George Bernhardt.   Bernhardt carried the band, matching Springfield chord for chord and handling the bulk of the leads, too.

Springfield is actually 61 years old and has always struggled to be taken seriously as a rocker based on his music and not on his acting career or his striking good looks.  By all appearances, he seems to have aged very minimally.   His struggle may continue, as he looks, at 61, the way many 35 year olds might simply dream of looking.   It’s exceptional and a dilemma that many would love to have.   He remains sculpted and gaunt, he still has his long hair, and his face has aged very little relative to time.  He also retains a rocker’s swagger.   He did hurl several guitars and microphones through the air to the waiting tech in the wings, and some of this gear crashed amidst the showmanship.   But, how the ladies loved it!

The first several rows of seats were perhaps 90% women…screaming, dancing intensely, and plotting to devour the man from afar.  He must have destroyed a half dozen gift bouquets of roses, swinging them into his guitar strings to explode in a shower of petals.   Men in the audience looked at the proceedings and were impressed – in the sports training manner we all know from the gym.   Still, it was a little disconcerting to hear men in the crowd screaming, “Rick!” even if they were standing next to their wives.

Springfield has very long arms and legs, which helped deliver his choreographed rock moves with the panache of the best of ‘em. He looked entirely the part of a rock and roll dynamo as he wiggled his arms, shimmied his legs, spun and twisted his guitar, and did his best Pete Townshend pinwheels all in front of an impressive row of boutique Bogner amps and cabinets. However, in the interest of perspective, his guitar was turned way down in the mix and for most of the show while he pranced we only heard him singing the songs. Occasionally we heard an overdriven guitar line from him but that was all. No doubt about it, his band rocked the songs with authority while he sold them to the crowd on the same level vocally.

Art Alexakis

Opening the show was Santa Monica’s own Art Alexakis who used to lead the band Everclear in the 90’s.   He played a short but engaging acoustic set that included songs ranging from “Brown Eyed Girl” to Everclear’s memorably chugging hit “Santa Monica.”   Like his friends Springfield and Cronin, he also looked like a man who has stayed in shape, is still playing music, and is holding his own walking down the road with old man Time.  It was reaffirming to see the possibilities in the ways that all three acts carried themselves.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


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