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REO has 'rode out the storm'

For The Dispatch


REO Speedwagon's first two hit singles in the late 1970s, "Ridin' The Storm Out" and "Roll With the Changes," were about surviving the challenges of life.

But, as it turned out, the two songs actually described REO's ability to still be performing almost 30 years after the group began touring across the Midwest in a rented Chevy station wagon.

" 'Ridin' The Storm Out' and 'Roll With the Changes' are really stories about our careers," said original band member Neal Doughty in a phone interview last week. "We've managed to make the necessary changes to keep going through 10 music styles that have come and gone since we started.

"It also helps to have Kevin (Cronin) still performing lead vocals. You can replace different musicians but it's important to keep the familiar voice of the lead singer."

Doughty, REO's keyboard player, said his band's diverse music style has been the key to surviving three decades in a competitive business.

"We play everything from hard rock to love ballads," he said. "Our audience is also an even mix of men and women who are all ages. We also have kept a good following with our grass-roots fans.

"I have a lot of friends who like the classic music. And I believe a lot of classic music naturally crosses over to the next generation."

Many of REO's grass-roots listeners will be in attendance when the group performs at Moondance Jam VIII on July 8 in Walker.

"We really enjoyed playing at Moondance Jam two years ago," Doughty said. "It's one of the better shows we play in our summer schedule of outdoor concerts.

"(Moondance Jam) is like the tradition of Woodstock. Moondance is what a rock festival is really like for anyone who missed the 1960s."

REO became familiar with the back roads of Minnesota in the early 1970s when the group played a series of bar stops in the Great Lakes states. The five-man band's popularity spread from regional to national fame by the time its first album "Ridin' The Storm Out" hit the charts in 1974.

REO then reached international fame with a pair of No. 1 hits -- "Keep on Loving You" (1981) and "Can't Fight This Feeling" (1985).

In its climb to prominence, REO consisted of Doughty and Cronin, Bruce Hall (bass guitar), Gary Richrath (lead guitar) and Alan Gratzer (drums). But in the late 1980s Richrath was replaced by Dave Amato and Gratzer replaced by Bryan Hitt to form the current group.

By the 1990s, REO already had compiled 17 critically acclaimed albums, 13 singles in the Top 40 and sales of more than 40 million albums. The group's strength, according to Doughty, was its live performances and REO was playing a tiring schedule with stops across the United States and Canada, along with Berlin, Belfast and Tokyo.

REO continued to work on new music and was asked to play along side Bill Clinton on the final swing of his successful 1996 presidential campaign.

"That year we came out with the 'Building The Bridge' album," Doughty said. "I like every song on the album but our record producer at the time was not a force behind it."

REO since switched back to Epic/Sony productions and will be releasing "The Ballads" CD in August. "The Ballads" consists of 12 of REO's most popular love songs and two new recordings -- "Just For You" and "Till the River Runs Dry."

"I'm a ballad fan," Doughty said. "Some of the rock 'n roll songs you can blaze through but you need to put so much more emotion into a ballad."

Doughty said current REO band members aren't showing signs of slowing down as they prepare for a fourth decade of music.

"We have a nice situation now where we play a six-week summer concert schedule and then take time off during the winter," Doughty said. "People keep asking 'how much longer can we do this?' I think we'll be around for a long time."

Still On Tour

If longevity means anything, then REO Speedwagon should rank near the top of rock and roll bands still on the tour. Formed by a couple of University of Illinois roommates in 1967, Neal Doughty and Alan Gratzer, the band got underway in earnest in the early 1970s. Over the years, they've mastered 13 Top 40 singles, many of them in their trademark "power ballad" style, including "Keep On Lovin' You" and "Take It On the Run." In recent years they are best-known for the "Building the Bridge" album which was forwarded to Bill Clinton in the White House in 1996. The president used the phrase over and over again in his re-election campaign.