Words by Jonathan Smith
Classics have a way of continuing to get better with age, and with more than 50 years now in the rearview and more than a decade since their last studio release, Chicago-born arena rock sensations REO Speedwagon have continued to rock the masses with the onset of their golden years. With a multitude of former studio and live members that could constitute a half dozen other bands, they have nevertheless maintained a core lineup that has consistently delivered one ringer performance after the next, solidifying their status as mainstays in the live circuit and winning them tours alongside such noted hard rock stalwarts as Styx, .38 Special and Journey. Yet with the onset of a new year has come some changes in the arrangement, not the least of them being the recent retirement of co-founder and songwriter Neal Doughty in a live capacity, marking the first time this iconic outfit has donned the stage with a new keyboardist no less, but the show must naturally go on, and for the audience at the Pompano Beach Amphitheater on February 8th, 2023 it would proceed in peak form.
With favorable weather conditions and the onset of dusk, the outdoor venue was almost sold out and the level of anticipation from the waiting crowd was nothing short of palpable. The headliner’s entry would be greeted with a deafening sea of claps and cheers, with newly tapped keyboardist Derek Hilland being the lone newbie to this brand of star treatment. As the feedback of Dave Amato’s guitar and the infectious grooves of Bryan Hitt’s kit ushered in the opening banger “Don’t Let Him Go”, the energy level was cranked into overdrive at the very start, and though at first helmsman Kevin Cronin’s voice came off a tad haggard, by the time the song was in full swing the high notes began to flow like the waves of the Atlantic striking the Florida beach. Indeed, for a man now well into his 71st year, there was still a youthful zeal to Cronin’s performance that would permeate the entire set, further buoyed by superb lighting, on-point acoustics and a highly energized and animated showings from Amato and bassist Bruce Hall. The tempo of things had a somewhat slower character relative to even their most recent performances, yet Hitt’s kit work would prove both precise and strong, driving things along at a respectable roar throughout.
Ever the charismatic showman, Cronin’s between song banter would be a highlight of the evening, bringing the nostalgia factor into full focus for their longstanding fans and providing a bird’s eye view into their extensive past for any prospective newcomers. Of particular note was his good natured introduction of “Building The Bridge”, which would see three members of the opening act Levon share the stage with this iconic fold in a support role, further bolstering an already dense choir of backing voices. Things would take on a more poignant character with Cronin’s reminiscence of dearly departed former lead guitarist Gary Dean Richrath prior to a heartfelt rendition of “Son Of A Poor Man”, leaving few of their older attendees with dry eyes no doubt. Other standout moments would include a gripping performance of their smash hit “Keep On Loving You” with Cronin sitting at the piano, along with their other breakout anthem off “Hi Infidelity” “Take It On The Run” and their 1984 banger “Can’t Fight This Feeling” bringing down the house despite the lack of walls or a roof being present. Yet for those who craved a true hard rock spectacle would receive it when Bruce Hall took on vocal duties for the heavy-hitter “Back On The Road Again”, which also served as the song for member intros despite being near the end of the set.
There were many takeaways from REO Speedwagon’s avid display of old school hard rocking brilliance on this mid-winter Florida evening, but chief among them was the sheer longevity on display by an outfit that has been bringing the thunder to the stage for better than 5 decades and still came away primed for more. Chalk it up to their brand of music being either a de facto time machine or a veritable fountain of youth, but with each member of the core fold (excepting Derek Hilland) being either just shy of or just past the age of 70, it had little bearing on their ability to recreate anthems that were burning up the charts before many of us had been born amid a highly elaborate stage setup and stellar visual display that has always been a hallmark of the REO Speedwagon concert experience.
Having already hit much of the continental United State in the prior weeks of 2023 and with another date in Puerto Rico on deck, the road for this fold appears far from over, and while they haven’t produced any new studio material in quite some time, the legacy that they’ve built throughout the 70s and 80s alone will be more than enough to carry them until father time finally declares their touring days concluded.