KEVIN CRONIN: IN CONVERSATION ABOUT REO SPEEDWAGON
Gary 'Rockulus' Clarke
'Live At Moondance Jam' is just what it says on the tin! It's a live affair that was recorded during their appearance at the annual Moondance Jam festival which takes place in Minnesota, USA.
Started way back in 1992 and providing entertainment and a good show to a few hundred people made up of friends and families, this live extravaganza now welcomes audiences in the region of tens of thousands at a time and it continues to grow.
Recognised these days as a classic rock festival, Moondance Jam seemed ideal as the backdrop for this recording of REO Speedwagon's most recent live album.
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The band are also renowned and respected for their sterling output of Melodic Rock classics coated in hook-laden appeal and sentiment since their debut album 'R.E.O. Speedwagon' back in 1971. Two notable classic tracks that withstand time and space are familiar nuggets 'Keep On Loving You' and 'Can't Fight This Feeling'. These songs alone have propelled the band to a very high status within the world of Rock music, but are simply the icing on the cake.
Before Christmas I was really privileged to get an audience with the main songwriter and lead vocalist Kevin Cronin, who spoke to me from across the Atlantic about this recent live album and to tackle some other questions. We didn't have long in which to deal with two sheets of research and queries that I had collated during the build up to our conversation, but I was able to gather plenty from the experience which I'm pleased to share with you here.
Knowing that REO Speedwagon had released a few live albums in the past, including a pivotal release in 1977 called 'Live: You Get What You Play For', I wanted to tackle Kevin about his attitude and his thoughts on live albums in principle.
"Well I mean for me, our live album 'You Get What You Play For' basically saved the band. We had recorded I think, six albums prior to that and you know they had a little bit of success. You know 'R.E.O.T.W.O.' did pretty well in the Mid-West and it kept us in a place where we could play decent gigs, but we were still staying three or four guys in a hotel room, travelling around in an old 1972 Chevrolet station wagon."
Kevin was smiling as he told me the romanticised imagery of touring on a small time scale. Struggling as they went from one location to the next, cramped and uncomfortable half the time but still having fun.
"When the live album came out, it was really Gary Richrath's (guitarist) idea because we felt like no one had really captured the essence of the band."
As Kevin went through those moments from the past, it also triggered another thought. "Coincidentally, Peter Frampton had just released his live album and it did so well, and Gary saw that and said wait a minute; if Peter Frampton can have hits from his live album with songs that were basically older songs, a light bulb went off in Gary's head; that's exactly what REO Speedwagon needs! We really have Peter Frampton's success to thank for the record company allowing us to make a double live album."
Kevin rounded out this tale of rags to riches by explaining that they received their first gold record in London for the sales relating to this 1977 live album.
"We were on top of the world. We were in England and all of us were still affected by the British invasion of music; The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, you know, The Hollies and the list goes on and on." With an enthusiasm to his voice he then finishes up his answer. "Live records mean the world to us; there are no tricks. You just go out on stage and you play it. What you see is what you get."
Noting the inclusion of the track 'In Your Letter' on the 'Live At Moondance Jam' which is a rare appearance, I wanted to know why.
"When we played that Moondance Jam show we were celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 'Hi-Infidelity' record."
The penny dropped as he explained further. Their 1980 studio album was the mightily successful 'Hi-Infidelity' which contained three very strong tracks heralded as fan favourites and staples in their live sets. The aforementioned hit song 'Keep On Loving You' plus 'Don't Let Him Go' and 'Take It On The Run'.
"On some shows we were playing pretty much the whole 'Hi-Infidelity' album. In Moondance we didn't have quite that much time to play because there's a lot of bands in the show. We included more music from the 'Hi-Infidelity' record than normal that year in our set-list."
As an afterthought, Kevin adds: "To us, we look at that song as a kind of novelty song, but in some parts of the world that's our most famous song. In Central America, in Puerto Rico they love that song. In Japan they go crazy for that song so you never can tell how a song is going to affect some people."
In 1987, REO Speedwagon released their 12th studio album 'Life As We Know It' and on that album there was a hit song called 'In My Dreams'. During my research I stumbled across how Kevin was amusingly frustrated with the arrangement regarding playing it in the live environment.
"You know what, we have been trying to find an arrangement for that song literally for the last twenty years. It sounds stupid, in retrospect I never really, I don't really enjoy the way we produced the song on the original version, because the song was really written as an acoustic, almost as a Crosby, Stills & Nash song."
He admitted that he finds the song difficult to sing, but does approach it live when he does a solo acoustic set. But thus far, as a band arrangement for REO Speedwagon it remains elusive. Although saying that, Kevin did remark on how he had been discussing with Bryan Hill (the drummer) about tackling a new possible arrangement, so watch this space.
"That's one of the coolest things about the fact our band is still out playing big shows and touring at a high level after all these years, is the fact that I know all of these songs so well, and a song like 'Time For Me To Fly' I can picture exactly where I was, exactly the moment. I know these songs so intimately, they're like my children."
This is an observation that he shares when I ask about the stories behind some specific songs from their repertoire.
"It really came about because I travelled from Chicago, my hometown, out to Colorado and I'd never seen mountains before."
Kevin lets out an embarrassed chuckle as he recollects the first moments when 'Time For Me To Fly' came to him.
"I was about 18-years-old and I was visiting a friend of mine who was one of the four guys in my high school who let their hair grow a little bit and started playing guitar. So I got there and I was sitting on the porch, I remember it like it was yesterday, and looking from his porch up at The Flatirons, which is this rock formation right above Boulder. This beautiful formation you see when you're looking at the mountains in Boulder, Colorado."
His flow of memories take us on a journey where he refers to Richie Havens, and how initially the chords and sounds he was strumming on the guitar that day sounded awful at first. Naturally they didn't end up sounding awful as 'Time For Me To Fly' ended up surfacing on their 1978 studio album 'You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish'.
During my research, I noticed how the Country and Western icon Dolly Parton had covered the song and when I mentioned it to Kevin, he said he was thrilled that she had taken his song and performed it differently. On the negative side of the experience, Kevin didn't seem too pleased with her lack of feedback or acknowledgement when he sent her some flowers.
"The next time Dolly played in Los Angeles I sent her two dozen or like three dozen roses. I just wanted this gigantic bouquet of roses to be delivered to her dressing room and I never heard from her! Not a thank you or anything."
There you have it; the thoughts and words from a songwriter who has penned some impressive songs that have impacted on various individuals around the globe. Their latest studio album is titled 'Find Your Own Way Home' and was unleashed on us back in 2007. Even with my dodgy aptitude with mathematics, I can tell that they released it a long time ago.
"As far as a new studio record, man I would love to, I'm itching a little bit to record some new songs. I was actually writing the other day and I felt really inspired. In fact we're going to sound-check today, and I'm going to show the guys one of the songs I'm working on."
Despite this obvious eagerness to push forward, Kevin couldn't commit to setting out a timeline for any new material or releases, but there is something happening. Watch this space.