Seeing how Chicago and REO Speedwagon both formed in 1967 just a few miles from each other, it seems odd that the two bands had never performed together until this summer. On Tuesday, the two classic rock bands from Illinois will bring their joint tour to the Washington State Fair.
Each band will play an hourlong set, then the two will perform together. The Puyallup show is the final stop on their 24-date tour that kicked off on July 31.
REO’s lead singer Kevin Cronin joined the band in 1972. By 1981, REO was America’s top band. Its album “Hi Infidelity” with hits “Keep On Loving You” and “Take It On the Run” spent 15 weeks in the No. 1 slot.
Of Chicago’s current nine members, Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walt Parazaider are the longest serving in the horn-heavy band. Chicago has sold more than 100 million albums and produced 11 No. 1 hits.
Just before their tour began, Cronin, Lamm and Loughnane held a conference call with music journalists.
Q: Why have you never performed together until now?
Cronin: It doesn’t make any sense that we haven’t played together, considering both bands come out of Chicago. But it’s kind of cool that we’ve never played together, because it makes this tour that much more special for fans of both bands.
As far as us playing together on stage, I think that is probably, for me, the most exciting part of it … that we’re going to be able to cross-pollinate for a while at the end there. I’m just very excited to have the great musicians in Chicago playing along on some of our songs. To hear the Chicago horns section on “Roll With the Changes” is something that I’m really looking forward to.
Q: Kevin, what were the early influences for REO?
Cronin: I’d been taking guitar lessons for a couple of years, and I didn’t really know why I was playing the guitar, I was just playing “On Top of Old Smokey” and “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” Then all of a sudden The Beatles came on (“The Ed Sullivan Show”), man, and at the opening chords of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” it was like that Maxell tape commercial, I was sitting there, it just blew me out of my chair. It changed my life so dramatically that day.
Q: With so many songs to choose from, and in the case of Chicago, with your new album to promote, what’s the process for compiling the set list to try and get as much in there as you can?
Loughnane: Even when we play shows on our own, we play a two-hour show and can’t get all of the songs that have become hits into the show. We’ve had to pare it down to I think an hour set: each band is going to play an hour set.
Cronin: We have a core of songs that if we don’t play them, there’ll be an angry mob waiting for us outside right around the tour bus. There are those songs that people buy tickets to come and hear. To me, there’s nothing worse than going to a concert to see a band, and they leave out some of their bigger songs for some reason. I’ve never understood why people do that. It makes me mad when I go to a show and that happens.
Q: Kevin, talk a little bit about this version of “Ridin’ the Storm Out” that’s just come out on this new compilation.
Cronin: That was just when the lead singer spot in REO Speedwagon was pretty much a revolving door. The first three albums that REO made, there was a different lead singer on each one. I sang on the second record, and then during the third record, something went horribly wrong. I had all my vocal tracks done. When Mike Murphy replaced me, of course they put on his vocal parts down.
Somebody just unearthed those original tracks. For me, for the real diehard REO fans, yeah, there is a version of “Ridin’ the Storm” out now that is the original vocal that was responsible for … maybe more me losing my job in the band. I don’t know.
Q: Regarding touring, what’s new and what’s the same?
Loughnane: So far the transporter machine from “Star Trek” has not been invented, so we cannot go home after every show and then appear again magically for the next show. We have to be away from the family to accomplish our touring. That has not changed, and probably is not going to in the near future.
Q: What about merchandising?
Lamm: It’s not really a significant boost to the income. For me, it seems to be more of a memento for the fans that want something. When I go and see a Broadway show or a concert, I usually want to grab something, whether it’s a CD or a pair of sunglasses or something. It’s really just sort of a memento. I have Lady Gaga sunglasses, just so you know.
Cronin: I was just saying that the touring has been the thing that’s been the most the same. The touring, still, you get on the bus, you get to the hotel, you go to the gig, and that’s been for 40 years. We’re staying in nicer hotels now than we did in the ’70s, for sure. Probably the best thing that’s changed is tour buses have satellite TV now. It’s better than the 1972 Chevrolet Impala station wagon that we traveled in back in the ’70s for sure. Our keyboard player Neal has a great line: he says, “We play this show for free. It’s the other 22 hours of the day that we get paid for.”
Q: Aside from practice, practice, practice, what advice would you give a young musician who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Cronin: I always tell young people that you’re going to have people who are going to tell you that you suck 100 times, until the 101st person gets what you’re trying to do. You’re going to have to be willing to put up with a lot of discouragement, and have you have to believe in yourself so strongly that you can withstand it.
Loughnane: I think as far as being a musician, there’s a sensitivity that is, in a sense, in being a musician. Along with that sensitivity, once you get into a band, performing for people, you have to come to grips with making mistakes and failing. Being able to get back up, and, “You know what? I’m going to do it better this time.” Figure out that most people hadn’t heard that mistake. They hear the overall sound of the song, and the intent, and the feeling that you’re putting out there. That’s what people connect with.
Lamm: A really important component to being a musician is to be able to listen. Be able to listen to the other players in your band. Be able to listen to music in general. There’s music now that we have access to on the web from every corner of the world, every culture in the world. It’s really important that we remember that music is a communication. Listening to music, and being willing to use music on a personal basis for communicating to other people is really what we’re doing.
Q: What ways have you seen your fan base grow and evolve?
Cronin: I would say that our fan base, it’s kind of a multi-tiered type of thing. I imagine that Robert and Lee could concur, that you look out in the crowd and you see people that have seen the band and been there from the very beginning, and are just longtime fans that just came and see it over and over again, they can’t get enough of it. And then I see high school and college kids out there, and they know all the words, they’re all singing along. It’s a wide range of an age group out there.