Rock ‘n’ roll legends of Champaign return to UI

Photo courtesy of REO Speedwagon

Photo courtesy of REO Speedwagon

By Eric Heisig

Kevin Cronin has been the lead singer of REO Speedwagon since 1971. While he is not the original, he is the singer of some of their best-known hits, including “Keep on Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Cronin and the band will be playing at Assembly Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

DI: How has the live show evolved to what it is now?

KC: Our live show has got a core of around 10 songs that if we don’t play those songs every night, there is a pretty good chance there will be an angry mob outside of the tour bus. Unfortunately those were songs that were big hits for the band, but we still love to play them. We love playing “Ridin’ the Storm Out,” “Take It on the Run,” and “I Can’t Fight This Feeling.” People identify with the songs, and we know what people want to hear. We also play two or three songs from (the 2007 album) “Find Your Own Way Home.” Those are the newest and freshest, and they are always fun to play live.

Then the third category is audibles. It comes from a pool of songs that we used to call album cuts. They were not really hit singles, but fan favorites. They vary in different regions, different parts of the world, so we vibe out the situation and pick them out.

In Champaign, being a very special town for us, we’ll be playing some songs like “Golden Country” and “Son of a Poor Man” where a lot of other parts of the country may not be familiar with it. They can be songs we played at the Red Lion Inn in the early ’70s.

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In Champaign, we have just so much history. I wrote “Golden Country” sitting on the Quad. I used to sneak into the music building, and sneak into the piano studio. The whole campus area is a really fertile ground for us.

DI: You are from Evanston, Ill., but the rest of the band is from Champaign. What kind of connection do you feel with the community?

KC: The band kind of accidentally heard about me when they played up in Chicago. I moved to Champaign when I joined the band. I went from being a folk singer to being in a rock band. REO Speedwagon were rock stars, the kings of Champaign. I was thrust into that role,

I lived right near campus and hung out on Green Street. Also at Red Lion Inn, if we didn’t play there, we were hanging out there.

There is a connection. Every night, I mention Champaign, Ill., because that’s our roots. Without students of U of I and Champaign, we wouldn’t be where we are.

DI: Is there any way to prevent the band from becoming a nostalgia act? How do you as musicians try to fight that feeling, if there is a feeling at all?

KC: We’re vigilant about that. There is a part of what we do that is nostalgia, and any band from the ’70s or ’80s that denies that is a fool. The majority of the people are coming to hear those songs from the ’80s that we love. We have no problem with that, we love singing those songs.

Still, if we strictly go out there and regurgitate the ’80s, I would be bored still – couldn’t do that. Continuing to write and record is essential, but I know I’m realistic. When we released “Find Your Own Way Home,” it was definitely one of the best albums we have ever made, but I have to understand it’s not going to sell 10 million copies. But it’s important to continue to make them.

Music is a living breathing art form, it evolves. I walked into a bar in Indiana accidentally, and a tribute band for us was playing. Their trip is to listen to the old records and mimic them precisely. I thought that was horrible. Hopefully we’ve improved on that a little bit. To hear someone sing it the way I sang it 30 years ago is like looking at an old high school yearbook.

DI: How do you feel about your songs being used in films and commercials?

KC: I think it’s great, fortunately we have control over it. Anyone who wants to use our songs has to first get our permission. We are very protective of our songs – they are our children in a way.

We like it to be something we relate to. “Can’t Fight This Feeling” was in “Horton Hears a Who.” It was cool to hear Jim Carrey, Steve Carell and Carol Burnett, and sang the song as Dr. Seuss characters. I have three little kids, so we went to the premiere.

DI: What is one thing you would like to accomplish as a band before your time is up?

KC: I think for me, I want to be the last guy standing. I look at a guy like Tony Bennett, one of the great singers of all time, and as time has gone on, his contemporaries have stopped singing. I see that with my contemporaries. I think that as time goes on, maybe the fact that we are still doing it will cause people to take another look and give us a chance.

That’s what keeps me going, to exceed people’s expectations.

DI: What are you listening to these days?

KC: I love the latest Foo Fighters record, and I am just starting to get into the new Metallica record. I just bought the new Randy Newman record, and it’s wonderful. I put this record on and it makes me smile, he is such an amazing writer. There’s a little bit of a political undertone, not overt, but he’s just so clever with his wordplay.

Also, with an 11-year-old, do you think I haven’t heard The Jonas Brothers?