Styx & REO Speedwagon
Allentown Fairgrounds – Allentown, PA – August 30, 2023
Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf
It was a hot, humid day on August 30th but it was opening night of the fair at the Allentown Fairgrounds. When the fair comes to town, with its carnival rides, games and treats, eager adults and children fill the grounds with anticipation, excitement and pure joy. When the fairgrounds include a large concert stage and seating for 10,500 music-loving fans, and the artists booked are beloved rock bands, the attendance and the energy across the fairgrounds is multiplied tenfold. On this evening, 8000 fairgoers filled the concert seats for the performance of two bands who’ve began creating music and performing since the 1970s. These bands, who continue to fill venues across the US, bringing together thousands of eager fans to share in the music and the memories of days gone by are REO Speedwagon and Styx.
Fans of music from the 70s and 80s are a musically loyal, nostalgic group. These decades had an explosion of music across multiple genres, and expansive concert tours and large music festivals increasingly became part of the American musical culture. Those who came of age during this musical era often have a strong attachment to the music that was woven into their lives. This bond is frequently based on memories attached to specific artists and songs, as well as an early connection made to a type of music, an instrumental sound, or a melodic energy that altered how one hears, understands and relates to music. In the past ten to fifteen years there’s been a significant resurgence of performances by 70s and 80s artists and an equal interest from fans to attend these performances, both sides reveling in the nostalgia and joy this phenomenal music brings. At the Allentown Fairgrounds it was not surprising that with all going on around us in the world today that 8000 fans were present to immerse themselves in this cherished music of the past.
With sundown hitting and the skylight fading, and throngs of fans filling the floor seats and raised wooden bleachers, REO Speedwagon burst onstage led by their energetic, passionate lead singer and guitar player Kevin Cronin. The band opened with “Don’t Let Him Go,” followed by “Take It on the Run,” both from their hit 1980 album Hi Infidelity, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It’s not a surprise “Take It on the Run,” which was released as a single in March 1981 and reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, had the enthusiastic crowd singing along with Cronin, as minds and hearts traveled back in time 42 years. Turning the clock back further, the band continued with “Keep Pushin’” from R.E.O., the band’s album from 1976, before jumping ahead to 1984, with “Live Every Moment,” from Wheels Are Turnin’.
As the band played “Tough Guys,” from Hi Infidelity, audience members closest to the energy emanating from the stage stood on their feet and rocked to the music, passionately singing along at full volume. No matter how enthused the crowd became, it would’ve been virtually impossible to match the high spirits of Cronin, himself, as he swiftly crossed the stage, while singing and jamming on his guitar. It was wonderful to see that a half-century into his musical career Cronin’s vitality and musical talents have not diminished. Cronin was surely not the only band member demonstrating this heightened energy and exhilaration. Dave Amato on guitar, Bruce Hall on bass, and Bryan Hitt on drums, all members of the band for more than 30 years, contributed to the electricity onstage, with Cronin, Hall and Amato frequently meeting at centerstage for a powerful guitar jam trio.
This year keyboard player Neal Doughty, the band’s only original member from 1967 (Cronin joined in 1972), retired from touring after 55 years. Speaking to the crowd Cronin shared, “When Neal retired all of us called our musician buddies looking for the right person. I called my buddy Rick Springfield.” With cheers and hoots from the audience, Cronin continued. “Along with trusting his taste in keyboard players, I also needed his guidance with my hair and clothing and overall physical being and Rick was the guy. Who better to go to when you’re looking for beauty tips than Rick Springfield?” Cronin queried, to the applause of the crowd. “Rick tells me he has the guy. A great organ player, a great piano player, a great singer, and best of all, a sweet, kind, decent human being. So, please welcome on the grand piano, the happiest man in rock and roll, Mr. Derek Hilland!” As Hilland played the band’s hit “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,”Cronin’s beautiful vocals filled the evening sky, as Amato, Hall, and thousands of fans joined in during the song’s passionate chorus.
Additional songs in the set included “Song of a Poor Man,” which Cronin shared was connected to the band’s days as “the biggest bar band in Illinois,” and “Golden Country,” about our beautiful country. “For the past 15 years we’ve toured all over the world,” Cronin stated. “We’ve met some beautiful people but I’m always glad to be back here with so many beautiful people. I believe in the power of people. There’s been a lot of differences between people in this country but maybe we can listen to others and find some common ground. We’re so fortunate to live in the land of the free and home of the brave!” Cronin declared to rapturous applause. “Let’s give this group a little taste of what they came for and take them on a ride!” Cronin shouted. As Hall took over the mic and began singing lead vocals on “Back on the Road Again,” Cronin and Amato jammed on their guitars and Hitt powerfully beat the drums.
“This next song changed my life, for good,” Cronin sentimentally stated. He began playing the distinct piano notes for the band’s first No. 1 hit “Keep on Loving You,” as the audience, now all on their feet, sang along in heartfelt unison. The set ended with the energetic, electrifying “Roll With the Changes,” as the audience, still on their feet, rocked to the music, enthusiastically singing “keep on going….keep on going.” After a half-century it looks like that’s exactly what REO Speedwagon is planning to do, they’re thankfully going to “keep on going.”
With the sky know darkened and the beautifully illuminated ferris wheel peaking out from behind the bleachers, it was time for Styx to make their way onto the stage. Regardless of how often I see Styx perform I never tire of doing so and I’m never any less amazed by their performance. Their energy and enthusiasm remain robust, and their voices are as powerful and clear as bands newly on the touring circuit. For several members of Styx who’ve been playing these songs for close to a half-century, James J.Y.” Young and Tommy Shaw, both on guitar and lead vocals, as well as bassist Chuck Panozzo (making appearances for several numbers), there still appears to be excitement for the music and sharing it with the band’s adoring fans. As I watch Styx performing I think about how proud they must feel as they look out at the devoted crowd (sometimes thousands), who are passionately singing along to a catalog of beloved songs created over decades.
The set opened up with the dynamic “To Those,” from the 2022’s Crash of the Crown, Styx’s first album released since 2017’s The Mission. While this energetic number revved up the crowd, the minute the band played the first notes of 1978’s hit “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” the excitement in the audience skyrocketed and the Styx devotees remained in a fervor for the remainder of the performance. This level of excitement was understandable, as there was never a time when the music and the energy did not showcase the dynamic, creative, enthusiastic, rock and roll spirit of Styx. “The Grand Illusion,” the title song from the band’s 1977 album kept the band at high energy and volume, with Todd Sucherman’s powerful drum lead-in and Lawrence Gowan’s fiery vocals. The pace of the music slowed and the volume decreased as Gowan began playing the delicate, twinkling piano notes of the heart-grabbing ballad “Lady.” As Gowan passionately sang, accompanied by Panozzo on bass, the soft voices of hundreds of audience members filled the air, before the song transitioned to a high-volume power ballad and the band joined in on guitars and drums.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen you. Thanks for coming!” Tommy Shaw announced, to the applause of the crowd. “You might know, we put out a new album last year called Crash of the Crown. It had been awhile since we’d put out some new music and we were sitting at home during lockdown and we had some music and we decided to put it out. We had no idea what it was going to do. But, then we took a look at the Top 100 rock album chart and where was it?It was No. 1!” Shaw ecstatically shouted. As the crow roared the band played the album’s title track. Additional songs in the set included the spirited “Lorelei,” from 1975’s Equinox, with Gowan on lead vocals, and powerfully vibrant guitar parts and backing vocals by Shaw, Young, Will Evankovich, and bassist Ricky Phillips, as well as “Rockin’ the Paradise,” from 1981’s Paradise Theatre. Each number brought movement by the musicians about the stage, with Gowan energetically traveling around his rotating keyboard, playing from in front and behind, Young, Shaw and Philips meeting center-stage for passionate guitar jams and frequent guitar duos, Philips and Evankovich, Young and Shaw, rocking together.
With as many hits as Styx had in the 70s and 80s, any number of songs could be fan favorites. Some, though not reaching the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 are still beloved by legions of fans. One in particular, written and sang by Shaw, is “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” released as a single in 1978 (peaking at #29.) After 45 years, watching and hearing Shaw passionately perform this number it still grabs your attention and heart from the first melodic notes of Gowan’s synthesizer intro, with Shaw on his acoustic guitar, raised high in the air. It’s amazing how clear, strong and vibrant Shaw’s voice remains, as the number builds in intensity with the electric guitars, and the backing vocals of bandmates and fans who passionately join in on “Get up…get up…get back on your feet. You’re the one they can’t beat and you know it!” The impassioned audience remained standing, singing and clapping along as the band performed Paradise Theatre’s “Too Much Time On My Hands.”
All miraculously quieted down as the band members exited the stage, except Gowan, who played the incredibly beautiful piano solo “Khedive” from The Mission, before Panozzo returned to the stage to perform Crash of the Crown’s “Lost at Sea” with Gowan. “I think they’re ready Chuck,” Gowan quietly said to Panozzo, as he began to play the first chilling notes of “Come Sail Away.” As Gowan beautifully sang the song’s heartfelt opening the audience sang along with soft, emotive voices. “That’s beautiful, sing to the moon,” Gowan touchingly said to the crowd. As the band members returned to the stage and the music began to crescendo Gowan shouted, “Come on Allentown!” as the song turned from a ballad to a rock and roll celebration, plumes of smoke burst from the stage and all in attendance powerfully sang, “Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me!”
As the band said their goodbyes and left the stage the fans remained locked in place for the encore. Their brief wait was rewarded when band members returned to perform hits “Mr. Roboto” from 1983’s Kilroy Was Here and “Renegade” from 1978’s Pieces of Eight. How incredible that it’s been more than four decades since most of these songs were released and they continue to generate as much joy and passion as decades ago.
Fans of music from the 70s and 80s are truly a musically loyal and nostalgic group. Maybe that’s because we had the best music? How lucky we are to still have the opportunity to see these artists perform. I can’t wait until the next time.