NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published November 19, 2011
"REO Speedwagon plays in Mountain Home, Arkansas !!"
As most of my readers know I rarely do "reviews" of concerts or bands, unless they really stick out in my mind, like an Eagles concert or something that personally strikes me as out of the ordinary.
But the reason I am writing about this concert is because for me, it was a kind of "reality check" on the state of the current concert motis operandi. There have been so many technological advancements in the entertainment industry that I was curious how a "Legacy Group" would adapt to a small town venue.
It's hard for me to believe that after all these years of broadcasting, concert promotion and being in the music business that I have not once crossed paths with REO Speedwagon. Back in my hey day in radio, I played a LOT of REO. Some of it was by request, but mostly it was me cramming REO's music down the throats of my listening audience in the early days. In the mid 70's I was working at 5,000 Watt AM KWHN and simulcasting along with 100,000 Watt Stereo FM KMAG. That means that our programming was broadcast over both stations at the same time. The coverage area was huge. In addition, the 5KW AM station switched to directional after sundown, and our signal narrowbanded right into the heart of Texas. I dare say it was one of the largest primary radio audiences in the Mid South.
For a couple of years I was the afternoon drive man, but at some point I moved to nights. My tastes shifted from the Top 40 Hits formula to playing album cuts from my favorite albums. At the time I didn't even realize I was helping to pioneer what was to be come known as Album Oriented Rock, or the AOR format. I began an 11PM to Midnight show called "Album Review" at about the same time that Clyde Clifford was running his own "Beaker Street" album show on KAAY.
REO released their self-titled first album on Epic in 1971. From that moment on, this band, like most any other Legacy band, went through many changes, in personal as well as philosophy. I will leave it to the reader to go WIKI REO Speedwagon for all the dirt and discography. Suffice to say that as far as THIS version of REO Speedwagon, REO IS Kevin Cronin and Neal Doughty (original keyboardist).
But I digress……..
Well, I had never seen REO and did not know what to expect, but I figured ANY band with 40 years under their belts ought to be good at the very least. I am somewhat jaded after years of doing concerts myself, and being a large part of the service industry feeding the concert scene. The "star power" doesn't affect me anymore. I tend to concentrate more on the show itself. I thought this might be a good opportunity for me to see how things are going on the tour circuit these days, so I agreed to come and video "Kingsdown".
L.D. arrived early on Friday evening, as he wanted to visit some old haunts from earlier days with Black Oak over on Bull Shoals lake, and do some catching up with old friends that still live here. On Saturday morning he came over to the studio and I did an interview with him for my HiTek Redneck Radio Show. It was a refreshing change from the usual fare of talking with the musicians and songwriters, and instead concentrating on the "behind the scenes" work that is done in the music business. L.D. is certainly no novice in that department, having worn many hats while working with Iron Butterfly, Black Oak, and Krokus. We had just enough time to visit and for him to check out the new studio, with its exquisite view of the lake. He chuckled, as the last Cedar Crest Studio he set foot in was the old one in town, located in the dark and damp basement of the Hubert's Complex… during the Krokus years. He seemed quite impressed with the new studio's equipment and surroundings, and even mentioned that this would be a good place to do their new band's media work. I was hoping he might notice that.....
I arrived at the venue an hour before the show to set up. Dennis and Dave were already there, overseeing the last minute stage concerns. Dennis took me back to the FOH PA position and introduced me to Allen, the engineer for Kingstown's opening set. I asked if he could give me a line feed from the mix and he eagerly complied. I brought along a 12' XLR, figuring they'd be running mono. They weren't, but he had no problem sending me a mono mix from the board. I used the other channel for my camera mic, to pick up the sound of the audience's reaction, in case Dennis and L.D. might need that in post production later. I sat up just to the right of center house position.
Five minutes into the set, Dennis came up and yelled into my ear "The folks behind you want to see more of the opening act" with an apologetical smile. I asked where he wanted me and he motioned over to a position directly behind the main PA console and in front of the lighting director. I dutifully set up and continued to follow the band on stage. All went well for the next 15 minutes, until the house PA engineer for Speedwagon showed up. We'll call him "Mr. Khaki Shorts". As I was intently watching the monitor I did not see him standing there glaring at me. Suddenly I became aware that someone was shaking my camera tripod. I looked up and received some crude gestures designed to convey the message "What are you doing here"? Before I could respond he said "THIS is MY space, not YOUR space!" Well, to be fair and honest, it WAS his space and I certainly understand territorial rights amongst tech types. I moved my tripod back about two feet and he moved his chair right to the edge of the front tripod leg, marking his territory. I leaned over and said "I'm sorry, I didn't choose this position." He said "I don't give a shit" and that was that. He went about his business with his nose embedded deeply into his clipboard.
Well, no stranger to pecking order and the hierarchy of life on the road, I let it all roll off me. After all, who knows who chewed HIS ass out five minutes before? It reminded me that some things NEVER change. The truth is that when you are in a different town every night and have the same routine, you hate for anything to deviate from the plan. I was a wrench in his finely-tuned schedule and as he was the one wearing the nifty communication device with the coil cord and handle attached to his neck, and he was protecting his territory. I understand that. I just didn't understand his demeanor, but it certainly wasn't the first time I'd ever run up against someone who has something to prove. Nothing ever escalated beyond that point, and I stayed out of his way for the rest of the set. At the very last note of "Kingsdown's" set, I immediately shut down, as I didn't not want to infuriate him any further lest he think I intended to video REO's set as well (I KNEW better than that BTW). So I packed up my gear and took it out to my car.
I got back to the stage just in time to spot Dennis, who waved me over to him. He and L.D. were doing last minute checks and so I followed them around back stage on their chores. It was fun, roaming around backstage like I used to do in the old days. I think Dennis perhaps sensed this which is why he wanted me to accompany him. I love watching the riggers and roadies do their prep work…... Making sure every "T" is crossed and ever "i" is dotted. Most people have NO idea what goes into the spectacle of a rock show. It is as close to a military operation as you will find.
REO was three minutes into their set before we actually headed out front. Although Dennis had a couple of free seats around the house, we chose instead to roam around and listen to the sound in the venue from various angles in the house. After a couple of songs, we finally wound up at the house mix position and took in the show.
The first thing that was apparent to me was the sound. Yes, it was loud. Not painfully loud. But VERY compressed. The sound was in your face all the time. There were NO dynamics to the house mix at all. Ever. The new computer sound console was a thing of Technological Marvel…. A ProTools rig in it's finest hour…. Simultaneously running dozens of plug-ins designed to give "maximum" gain and effect. The amazing thing was that despite all this compression I did not hear feedback one single time in the whole performance. That in itself is sort of amazing, given that I know what goes with all that technology. Every input (and especially the vocals) were running through a patch chain to die for. The sum of all those processed channels were then routed through no telling what else in the final buss insert. The result? A REAL "Wall of Sound" that Phil Spector would be envious of. Dennis and I talked at length about the house sound during the concert. The general consensus was that it (the entire PA system) sounded like a H U G E "Record Player" playing the "greatest Hits of REO Speedwagon" It WAS - JUST LIKE - listening to their records.
The band fired through at least half a dozen sure fire REO hits without stopping. After so many years playing in a Legacy Band, you know your mark on stage. You know where you are supposed to move to at each key point in the song. Move to the light here. Move over to mug with the bass player there. Jump up on this riser during this part. It's all "by the book" A much tested routine honed over many, many concerts and tours. There are very little spots for improvising. Each song has its own signature licks and arrangements. And if you are going to be faithful to the hit you've gotta' play it JUST LIKE the record (because the audience will know… believe me, they WILL know). So if there's supposed to be a cowbell part played here and the drummer is too busy to do it, well then, just plug that track in on the PT rig and there it is!!! I wouldn't call it necessarily a "Milli Vanilli Moment", but I do recall hearing a guitar solo that no one on stage was playing, so I know there had to be some "enhancements" going on. I don't mind that. It only enforces the illusion of "listening to the record on a giant record player". After all, it wasn't like any one of the players on stage could not play the part, but in the studio you have the luxury of endless double-tracking of guitar parts, etc. But live, if you want to reproduce everything you will have to hire some extra players to play those parts live. Today's lean tour demands don't allow for a lot of "extras" so it's just easier to fly in the occasional part at the board. Some may find that offensive, but it would only bother me if the lead singer was lip synching everything or even auto-tuning everything.
The stakes are high. Every audience member you lose is a potential loss of revenue of future product to sell. Touring today is a fine balance. By the time the band had played their opening songs, twenty minutes into the set, I was already desensitized to the "spectacle" of lights and sounds. And, as much as I enjoyed the lighting.. for the most part it was very well done…. But the band employed the use of these tiny little strobe lights into their amp line. They could change color and intensity, and I just didn't like them at all for some reason. For me they were too bright and took me away from the bands on stage performances. The idea of them may be sound, but their intensity was too much for me personally. It is the only criticism I have of the entire show.
At about the point that I was becoming critically aware of the show being contrived and a bit too formulaic, Kevin changed the direction. The lights dimmed, the band left the stage, and Kevin was all alone on center stage with an acoustic guitar. For me, that moment changed my entire night. As he sang his next song, it became apparent to me that here was a real human being, in the flesh, depending ONLY on his talent and stage presence. From that moment on, he won over the audience. Even the Walking Dead, which remained standing for every preceding song, in effect blindly unaware that all the people behind them could not see the stage, finally settled down and actually sat for a few minutes. Kevin showed himself to be a very aware and sensitive professional who really has the power to entertain an audience. From that moment on the show (for me at least) became more of a personal experience.
Bassist Bruce Hall, in REO since 1977, fronted a stack of what looked like Ampeg SVT cabs. Guitarist Dave Amato had a wall of Marshall stacks behind him as well. Neither of these fine players needed those amps, as a single stage amp through that mixer would have sufficed, but for the effect of the show, it was a staple of concert etiquette and eye candy. Dave's playing was fluid and he had all the signature licks down pat. Neal - to me- was sort of an enigma. I would have thought that after all these years Neal would be more demonstrative on stage, but he was very low key and seemed to prefer lurking in the background except for all his main keyboard chops. The Hammond work was true dyed-in-the-wool REO, and the grand piano, located on the other side of the drummer took up some real estate and balanced the stage a bit. Neal's keyboard playing was spot on, as was everyone else in this band of veterans. But clearly, it is Cronin who calls the shots, and rightfully so in my book. He truly stands out and has a positive effect on the audience, and THAT is what counts in the end, people. Charisma. And he's got it. After telling a few stories and taking a poke at "fishin', he had the audience eating out of his hand.
By the time the band had worked the audience through SO many hit songs, and the end drew near, I was comfortably numb from the "maximized" sound of the PA. The encore, of course, was "Ridin' The Storm Out"… so when the sweeping synth into blew out of the mains, it was no real surprise to me that it was played from the sound board, simply another track to pull up in order to "sweeten" the mix and once again make that invisible reference to the original mix and enforce the "giant record player" illusion.
The Sheid had almost a full house. They didn't sell out… I'd estimate about 1200 people........ But of great concern to me, those new bleacher seats in the back of the hall really do make a difference. The audience can actually SEE down stage now, and for the band and room, the acoustics have been improved greatly. It was nice being free to wander around the hall and listen to various spots in the room. All in all, I feel the room has been designed very well, but it needed that seating from the 1st concert. Oh,well…. Hindsight is always 20/20.
One more thing I want to comment on. Mid-way through the concert, Kevin made some comments about Mountain Home and how Black Oak Arkansas used to call this home, which drove the audience wild. He dedicated the next song to "L.D. Glover, who has a long history in the Rock and Roll business… I dedicate this to my friend….." I just happened to be sitting right next to L.D. when this occurred, and he was visibly affected. It was a great gesture on behalf of Kevin and L.D. deserved the accolade. It was a VERY nice evening, indeed.
At the end, Dennis took off for parts unknown, and I followed Lil' Dave backstage while he did his wrap-up chores. An army of teenagers appeared from out of no where and assisted the road crew in packing up and off loading the gear into the semi. Dave and I went backstage to the green room hallway and chatted with members of "Kingsdown" for a few moments. Dennis re-appeared just in time for REO to come out of their dressing room. As Dave was inquiring about something to do with mix with "Mr. Khaki Shorts", the rest of the band came out. L.D. and Dennis took turns introducing me to the band, doing their best to convey that I was "once somebody" and a DJ/musician "from the old days". Of course there were dozens of starry-eyed folks who were jockeying for position in the "shaking hands line"… pecking order and all that… so it was a confusing moment for the band. I chose to refrain from shaking hands as I had just gotten over a head cold and did not want these guys to catch a bug while on a tour. Besides, I would have preferred to just sit around with them and talk about whatever, but it rarely works out that way. Places to go…people to see….stages to fill…….
I cannot imagine how it would feel to be in a Legacy Band like REO, STYX, ZZ Top, Three Dog Night, Journey, or ANY band with over 30 years under their belts, who have to perform the same hits EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. It's GOT to be some kind of "Special Hell" for musicians. And then to be continuously travelling all over the country, from one end to the next, a new city every night, and NEVER having an opportunity to just sit down with folks and relax and get to know new people or trade road stories with other "old hands" from the business. It'd be a lonely life. As nice as those buses are, I would think they seem more like prison busses to the people who have to live in them day and night. At least today the technology has advanced to the point where you can be more easily entertained while on those long road trips. And, thanks to the Internet, I noticed Kevin is taking full advantage of an online blog. I should think that networking is about the most important connection a band like REO Speedwagon can use to bring their audiences closer "into" the band.
SO… looking back to last night… I am thankful that my old friends treated me to an evening "like in the old days"… and I still marvel at the fact that so much time has passed before I actually got to see (and meet) REO Speedwagon. AND, I am gratified to know that despite all that the music business has done to ruin the music, the audience still knows the difference. It was a loyal REO Speedwagon audience. They gave the band the benefit of the doubt until such time as Kevin & Company won their hearts…… through the music……
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