Gig review: REO SPEEDWAGON – Empire Rockfest, Belleville, Canada, 25 July 2013

A couple of hours East of Ontario, Belleville is a modestly sized city of only around 50,000, but for three days it was the AOR capital of the world. Somehow the organisers, the local Empire Theatre, had lined up Journey and Toto as well as this show I caught by three of the genre’s most entertaining live performers.

With 3500 people squeezed into the theatre’s parking lot between the two main streets of the homely downtown, this was a real Field of Dreams (or Wayne’s World 2!) ‘if you build it, they will come’ moment. Yet the set up was professional with one of the best sounds I have heard at an outdoor show with each separate instrument able to be heard perfectly.

It was obviously a big event for the town and judging from the few hands that went up when the bands asked who had seen them before, a large part of the audience were curious locals rather than die hard fans. It was an older, laid back crowd, who as an English friend I bumped into remarked, seemed not to have moved on from the seventies.

Kicking off proceedings were Night Ranger, battling audience unfamiliarity and a too brief 45 minute set time, which made it odd that they opened with new song ‘Lay It On Me’, before ‘Sing Me Away’ showcased the trademark guitar duels of Brad Gillis and the ever smiling Joel Hoekstra and shared vocals between Jack Blades and Kelly Keagy from stage right at his drumkit.

‘Four in the Morning’ had an irresistible chorus as usual, while their version of Damn Yankees’ ‘High Enough’ saw amazing vocal harmonies from all five to compensate for the absence of Tommy Shaw’s high-pitched vocals.

After a story of Brad Gillis’ brief time with Ozzy Osbourne, he burned up and down the fretboard with the Crazy Train solos, before all too soon the end was in sight with ‘When You Close Your Eyes’, featuring more great dual vocals and ‘You Can Still Rock in America’, moved forward from its usual place at the end of the set.

Introducing their own answer to Styx and REO’s hit making ballad days, Kelly came out front to sing ‘Sister Christian’, before taking to his drum kit for the crashing cymbals leading into the chorus that help give the song its dramatic power ballad feel, and won a standing ovation at the end of the song. Finishing with the trademark guitar jamming during ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me’, hopefully the locals saw enough to want to check out one of melodic rock’s great acts.

There then came a double helping of two entertaining shows, either despite or because of being fronted by a couple of old hams.  Since his fractious departure from the band he founded, Styx, Dennis De Young has formed his own band to continue their legacy with shows billed as ‘the music of Styx’.

With a full time keyboard player, DDY can do what he likes, either playing Hammond and synthesiser or prancing up front, messing about with guitarists Jimmy Leahy and August Zadra. When I saw him at Summerfest in Milwaukee last year he had the luxury of a long set, but this was a tight hour of Styx greatest hits, beginning with the ‘Grand Illusion’, ‘Lady’ and a lively ‘Lorelei’ with plenty of lead guitar work.

The two guitarists are not only an able and well matched pair with a lot of stage presence, but superficially look like the Styx duo of James Young and Tommy Shaw while the latter’s songs like ‘Blue Collar Man’ and ‘Too Much Time On My Hands’ are sung very capably by August.

One of the pleasures is hearing songs no longer on Styx’s current setlist including ‘Mr Roboto’, which saw Dennis getting into the spirit with his jerky stage movements and pretend conversation with a skull.

He may look like Barry Manilow these days, but the 66 year old frontman has a sardonic, neurotic  humour Woody Allen would be proud of.  Introducing the US No. 1 ‘Babe’, he described it as a demo he wrote as a present for his wife Suzanne – now a backing singer in the band –  ‘so I didn’t have to buy jewellery’.

As a ballad though even that was eclipsed by a wonderful ‘The Best of Times’ – complete with the  instrumental outro from ‘Paradise Theatre’ –  with stirring piano and his voice as theatrical and expressive as ever. A crisp ‘Renegade’ and ‘Come Sail Away’, with Dennis playing synths in the middle and belatedly getting a few to their feet,  ended a highly enjoyable set that had flown by all too soon.

At 10 REO Speedwagon took to a stage much smaller than they are probably used to but expended their usual incredible energy  running around it regardless. In such circumstances, I was disappointed that the crowd, who I had assumed were mainly there to see them, stayed glued to their seats.

Kevin Cronin looked slightly peculiar, initially coming on in thick specs which combined with his unruly grey hair to give him the air of a mad professor, but the timeless opener ‘Don’t Let Him Go’ set the scene for a rocking show in which the pace seldom dropped.

I was aware REO now realise they are a nostalgia act, but surprised at the focus on songs that date  deep back into the seventies – not just longtime live favourites like ‘Music Man’ and ‘Keep Pushing’, but the more progressive feel of ‘Golden Country’, giving Neal Doughty the chance for some prominent old fashioned organ work, the jamming of ‘Like You Do’ and best of all ‘Son of a Poor Man’.

While their multi million selling ‘Hi Infidelity’ era has been comparatively marginalised, ‘Take it On the Run’ was great as usual, Dave Amato putting his all into the solo. ‘That Ain’t Love’ was a surprise, with some very Spanish sounding guitar and no set is complete without ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’. Joking that it was a superior ballad to ‘Cat Scratch Fever’, at the sound of Dave blasting a snatch of that riff Kevin took a theatrical peek around a stage curtain, cupping his ear and asking ‘is he here’ in the camp manner of an entertainer at a children’s party.

After the REO set began to reach its usual, audience participating conclusion with ‘Time for Me to Fly’, it was indeed time for me to do so, away from the frustrations of sitting down and into an unregulated standing area to the side, to rock out to the timeless boogie of ‘Back On the Road Again’ with the more rough and ready singing of their ‘secret weapon’, bassist Bruce Hall.

‘Roll With The Changes’ finished the main set, with all the hallmarks of live REO, Neal’s organ solo in the middle followed by a guitar solo and Dave and Bruce charging from one end of the stage to the other.

‘Keep On Loving You’ was saved to the encore, delivered by Kevin from a piano and never fails to stir me as it in many ways set the template for the eighties ballad, particularly when the guitar solo moves into the bridge before the final chorus.

A powerful ‘Riding the Storm Out’ then showed REO for what they have always been, a hard driving live rock band, although come 1130 in a built up area there was no time for traditional closer ’157 Riverside Avenue’.

People of Belleville, you don’t realise how lucky you were to experience three acts with such a rich back catalogue of melodic rock classics, but who equally importantly know how to put on a show and have a good time on stage.

Review and Photos by Andy Nathan

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