Classic Rock Corner

"United We Rock" Tour Looses Classic-Rock Triple Threat

Bruce Hall, Neal Doughty, Kevin Cronin, and Dave Amato of REO Speedwagon
Bruce Hall, Neal Doughty, Kevin Cronin, and Dave Amato of REO Speedwagon Photo by Jason McElweenie
REO Speedwagon, Styx, Don Felder
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
July 29, 2017

Another solid summer classic-rock tour package hit town Saturday evening, with three hitmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s banding together under the “United We Rock” banner. For in these times of great division socially and politically, there are some things we can all agree on. We all like to play air guitar to “Hotel California,” fist-pump during “Come Sail Away” and bellow at the top of our lungs that we just wanna “Keep On Loving You.”

On the exact same night that his former feathered friends (or what is left of them) in the Eagles were headlining the Classic East show at Citi Field in New York (1,675 miles to the northeast; thank you, Google Maps), their former guitarist Don Felder was opening this show with a set list composed almost entirely of that band’s tunes. Save for the welcome and hard-rocking “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride),” his solo hit from the 1981 animated film.

click to enlarge Don Felder - PHOTO BY JASON MCELWEENIE
Don Felder
Photo by Jason McElweenie
There’s a reason that Don Felder rarely sang – there were four other, more distinct vocalists in the group. But while his reedier, flatter tone did not have the everyman quality of Glenn Frey or the world-weariness of Don Henley, his take on songs like “One of These Nights,” “Witchy Woman,” “The Long Run” and “Heartache Tonight” was actually pretty damn good, and his high-note hitting was unexpected of the 69-year-old.

His crack backing band, alumni of a litany of classic-rock superstars, aided and abetted Felder in the best way. And of course Felder ripped out all his solos with perfection. He also had an amiable, relaxed stage presence, whether introducing guest Tommy Shaw from Styx (who took a few choruses and broke out a banjo during “Take It Easy”) or his famous white, double-necked guitar that anchored “Hotel California,” the anthem for which he wrote the memorable music (it’s a white Gibson EDS-1275, for all you gearheads).

click to enlarge Lawrence Gowan (center), Ricky Phillips and James "J.Y." Young of Styx - PHOTO BY JASON MCELWEENIE
Lawrence Gowan (center), Ricky Phillips and James "J.Y." Young of Styx
Photo by Jason McElweenie
Felder’s all-killer-no-filler set clearly pumped the crowd for the high-energy arrival of Styx, who opened with “Gone, Gone, Gone” from their new release, the interplanetary-journey concept record The Mission. Looking impossibly lean and muscled, the 63-year-old Shaw led the band through classic after classic, leaning on his singing/writing contributions like “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” “Renegade” and “Too Much Time on My Hands.” Time may have robbed Shaw of some of the purer, higher vocal notes, but they were all delivered with a forcefulness and conviction.

At this point, singer/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan has logged nearly 20 years in the group as the replacement for Dennis DeYoung, so it’s not fair to make comparisons. Though that’s harder to do when he sounds like and bears a more than passing physical resemblance to his predecessor (Gowan now even sports a gray-at-the-temples look).

Still, he’s more than a talent in his own right, and either age or experience has tamped down some of the more overtly Energizer Bunny-frenetic, keyboard swiveling/jumping movements that irked some fans. But the guy still has energy to burn with the flair of a showman, and not only brought songs like “The Grand Illusion,” “Lady” and “Come Sail Away” to heights. And their “Radio Silence” off The Mission could stand alongside the band's vintage hits just fine.

click to enlarge Styx bassist Ricky Phillips - PHOTO BY JASON MCELWEENIE
Styx bassist Ricky Phillips
Photo by Jason McElweenie
Gowan also entertained with snippets of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” solo on electronic keyboard, which was a fun interlude. Founding guitarist James “J.Y.” Young got his sole vocal showcase with “Miss America.”

Founding bassist Chuck Panozzo – whose health issues prevent him from playing full-time – made memorable guest appearances on three songs in the set, often in spangly coats. Overall, audience reaction throughout was some of the loudest in recent memory for a classic-rock act at The Woodlands, and most of the audience in the seats were up on their feet for the bulk of the set.

With their livelier stage presence and deeper arsenal of familiar songs, Styx probably should have closed the show instead of REO Speedwagon, who took awhile to find their groove.

Hits like “Don’t Let Him Go” and “Keep Pushin’” seemed somehow force-fed. And while many vocalists lose their high range with age, singer/guitarist Kevin Cronin’s sometimes took on a cartoony-quality higher, as if someone were doing a Kevin Cronin impression or he were singing through a SpongeBob Squarepants vocal filter (this was most prominent on the ballad “Can’t Fight This Feeling”).

click to enlarge Bruce Hall, Neal Doughty and Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon - PHOTO BY JASON MCELWEENIE
Bruce Hall, Neal Doughty and Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon
Photo by Jason McElweenie
I’m someone who likes hearing new material from classic bands, and the as-yet-unrecorded “Whipping Boy” (a paean that Cronin explained, somewhat generically, was about “treating everybody equally”) sounded like classic REO. And the singer struck the only political note of the evening with a bit of talk before playing obscurities “Golden Country” and latter-day deep cut “Building the Bridge.”

“Our nation is divided so deeply, and it’s the same thing,” he said, while referring to past societal conflicts like the Vietnam War and Watergate. “We have to listen to what the other side says so we can learn something.”

But something happened in the latter portion of REO’s set that buoyed their performance and juiced the crowd: They turned into a pretty fine hard-rock band, even flirting with heavy metal, largely thanks to guitarist Dave Amato's searing riffs and crunchy chords and to drummer Bryan Hitt.

The latter was, arguably, the best instrumentalist on the stage, not just providing the backbeat for each song but infusing them with a raw power. It’s not often that a band’s skin-thumper at the back is so prominent, but that was the case here.

That made later set tunes like “Take It On the Run,” “Ridin’ the Storm Out” (preceded by birthday boy and, with Cronin, fellow classic-lineup member), Neal Doughty’s familiar storm-warning keyboard squeal, and closer “Roll with the Changes” highly energized affairs. Bassist Bruce Hall’s sole lead vocal on “Back on the Road Again” was, arguably, one of the entire show’s best songs.

click to enlarge Vincent Ruggiero backstage with Don Felder. He really is more excited than he looks. - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Vincent Ruggiero backstage with Don Felder. He really is more excited than he looks.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Bonus Review by Vincent Ruggiero,
a.k.a. “The Classic Rock Kid!”

My friends and I don’t see eye to eye in terms of tastes in music. As a matter of fact, I’ve never talked to someone under the age of 30 who’s even heard of “Take It On The Run.” Up until sixth grade, I had just listened to whatever my friends listened to.

That is, until the Eagles came along.

Soft rock with a drop of country, this band was exactly what I needed to bring back the joy in listening to music. Not only that, but I also got into other soft-rock bands such as Steely Dan, Chicago and even America. I also like the Eagles’ more rock-sounding songs, and Don Felder added that edge.

In short, I kinda like the Eagles.

The concert started at 7 p.m. sharp with Felder singing 11 Eagles songs and a theme song about a movie I was told I couldn’t watch [Dad’s note: No, son, you’re too young for Heavy Metal. Never mind when I saw it first.] Following him came a powerful performance by Styx. I wasn’t able to see all of it because I went backstage with — you may have heard of him — Don Felder himself. We took pictures, he assumed I was 16 instead of 13 because of my height, and, best of all, he signed his autobiography for me. That’ll go in the “keep in good condition” drawer.

Am I missing something?

Oh yeah, REO Speedwagon. It was unusual to see dozens of people at a time leaving the Pavilion before half their set was over. They did good, but Styx was better. Don Felder was better. No one left that concert saying, “Wow! REO’s performance was absolutely terrific!” Sorry, REO. Good performances can often be forgettable.

And now...back to Classic Rock Dad
Personal Bias:
More of a Styx fan, and remember my mother’s obsession with the Kilroy Was Here album. And why the hell aren’t they in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!

The Crowd: Forty- to sixtysomethings, white, many mouthing words the whole night. Far fewer Hawaiian shirts and more black T-shirts than at the Chicago/Doobie Brothers show. Plenty of former stoners.

Overheard In the Crowd From the Stage:
“HOUSTON, I hope you like this song…because it’s about YOU!”
Don Felder, introducing “The Long Run”

“HOUSTON, you know about space travel!”
— Tommy Shaw, talking up The Mission

“Have you been messing around, HOUSTON?”
Kevin Cronin, after “Take It On the Run”

Random Notebook Dump: The Pavilion looked like a Shriner’s convention at points — but for good reason. As part of REO/Styx’s own “Rock to the Rescue” charity, a couple dozen of them were selling CDs for $20 with a chance to win an autographed guitar; Styx offered up the new album, while REO opted for a more casual, fan-friendly greatest-hits compilation. The man behind me gladly bought one, and told how the Shriners took care of medical needs for his son for 18 years — free of charge. Good work, you guys who don’t do it without your fez on.


click to enlarge Don Felder - PHOTO BY JASON MCELWEENIE
Don Felder
Photo by Jason McElweenie
Don Felder
Already Gone
One of These Nights
Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)
Seven Bridges Road
Witchy Woman
The Long Run
Take It Easy
Heartache Tonight
Life in the Fast Lane
Hotel California

click to enlarge James "J.Y." Young and Ricky Phillips of Styx - PHOTO BY JASON MCELWEENIE
James "J.Y." Young and Ricky Phillips of Styx
Photo by Jason McElweenie
Gone, Gone, Gone
Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
The Grand Illusion
Light Up
Radio Silence
Miss America
Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
Too Much Time on My Hands
Bohemian Rhapsody/Golden Slumbers (snippets)
Come Sail Away
Rockin’ the Paradise

click to enlarge REO Speedwagon's Kevin Cronin - PHOTO BY JASON MCELWEENIE
REO Speedwagon's Kevin Cronin
Photo by Jason McElweenie
REO Speedwagon
Don’t Let Him Go
Keep Pushin’
Can’t Fight This Feeling
Tough Guys
Whipping Boy
That Ain’t Love
Golden Country
Building the Bridge
Take It on the Run
Time for Me to Fly
Back on the Road Again
Ridin’ the Storm Out
Keep On Loving You
Roll With the Changes
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero