Styx, REO Speedwagon Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion May 12, 2012
When dinosaurs roamed the earth, Saturday night in America was a pretty awesome place to party.
Considering how many times both Styx and REO Speedwagon must have been through Houston, this weekend's stop on their tandem "Midwest Rock N' Roll Express" tour couldn't help but feel haunted by the ghosts of Arrowfests past. Both bands are hard-rock groups that scored their biggest success with disgustingly maudlin radio-friendly power ballads, and both stubbornly refuse to acknowledge themselves as relics from another era.
Well into their second or even third generation of fans, why should they? The way the three kids in Styx shirts behind me, who couldn't have been older than ten or 11, were playing air drums during REO Speedwagon's set, both bands' appeal could be as strong as it ever was.
In keeping with their origins as a scrappy college-town bar band in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, REO is mostly hung up on girls, one way or another: Can't live with them ("Time for Me to Fly," "Back on the Road Again") or without them ("Can't Fight This Feeling," "Keep On Lovin' You"). Besides learning some wicked lessons from ZZ Top and Deep Purple, it's remarkable how many of their songs contain commands in the title: "Don't Let Him Go," "Take It On the Run," "Keep On Pushin'."
It would be incorrect to call them naifs, because any band that can write from such a bitter place as "Take It On the Run" knows just how cruel the world can be, but REO hasn't lost a certain sense of small-town wonder. "Golden Country," one of the oldest songs they played Saturday, brought the crowd to its feet when the LED screen showed the Stars and Stripes. Later, singer Kevin Cronin brought astronaut Col. Douglas Wheelock onstage to thank him for bringing an 8-track of Hi Infidelity to the International Space Station in a moment that... sorry, it was just cool.
By contrast, big-city Chicago boys Styx are both more theatrical and conceptual. Lawrence Gowan plays a rotating piano, sometimes from a reverse angle, if that tells you anything. Their songs imagine the singer as a man hunted by the law ("Renegade") or a woman seeking her fortune in the neon desert of Las Vegas ("Miss America," begging for a stripper pole).
Saturday, as many as four of the band members were singing at one time, piling on the harmonies as thick as we're likely to see at the Beach Boys next month. Styx once wrote an entire album about a future where rock and roll is illegal, and are not afraid to write Big Songs that make Big Statements about Society ("The Grand Illusion"), but know when to head straight for the heartstrings.
There is no middle ground with either Styx or REO Speedwagon. You either buy what they're selling, with interest, or dismiss them as preening, pompous antiques. Both bands belong to the era when bands walked onstage to give the audience a show, not an exercise in shared misery or an excuse to get rid of some stored-up aggression. Where technical ability, crowd interaction and showmanship mean something.
You pays your money, you gets your hits.
Personal Bias: One weekend I was home from Austin, I put both discs of my dad's copy of The Essential REO Speedwagon into his three-disc changer and hardly came out of his study to eat. It took me years, on the other hand, to find out that "Renegade" was by Styx and not Led Zeppelin.
The Crowd: Revenge of the suburbs. All ages and 100 percent into their band, especially their hit of choice. Must have been almost sold out, because there wasn't much room either under the shed or on the lawn. And if there were any Inner-Loopers there, they disguised themselves well.
Overheard in the Crowd: Three or four teenagers, waiting on a light to change on the way to the show, debating the relative merits of Styx vs. REO Speedwagon. They knew what they were talking about.
Random Notebook Dump: I still can't hear "Lady" without thinking of the Dan Band singing it at the wedding in Old School. I wonder if Styx would rather forget that.
REO SPEEDWAGON SET LIST
Don't Let Him Go Take It On the Run Keep On Pushin' Golden Country Can't Fight This Feeling That Ain't Love Son of a Poor Man Time for Me to Fly Back On the Road Again Roll With the Changes
Keep On Lovin' You Ridin' the Storm Out
STYX SET LIST
Blue Collar Man The Grand Illusion Too Much Time On My Hands Lady Lorelai Man In the Wilderness Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) Miss America Come Sail Away
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Rockin' the Paradise Renegade