I've never been a fan of either Kansas or REO Speedwagon. I've always considered their music vapid and overblown, unfortunate relics of a time where bigger was often confused with better. The years, I figured, had drained them of any relevance, leaving them with fond memories, blown eardrums and little else.
But I may have been mistaken.
The stadium survivors performed June 7 at Fort Gordon. And while the most orderly rock crowd I have ever seen organized lawn chairs and blankets in neat rows, the bands rolled out chestnut after guitar-driven chestnut, ready to party like it was 1979.
Kansas opened the show with a set featuring the elaborate arrangements and quavering falsetto vocals that have made them mainstays on classic rock radio. (Rolling Stone magazine recently reported the Kansas hit Carry on Wayward Son is the format's most-played song.)
Live, Kansas managed what I thought would be an impossible feat, playing with passion. Instead of po-faced rock anachronisms, plinking and plunking through a litany of hits, Kansas approached its set with attitude and verve.
Swerving through obscure album tracks as well as the expected Dust in the Wind, Wayward Son and Point of Know Return, the Kansas boys played like a band willfully ignoring the memo relegating them to musical obscurity. Instead, they let guitars squeal, drums rumble and lead singer Steve Walsh's voice soar. The music is still a little on the pretentious side, but every generation has a band like Kansas. Ask Radiohead.
Watching Kansas in action made me feel sorry for REO Speedwagon. There was no way, I reasoned, that the band responsible for sleepy-time power ballads such as Can't Fight This Feeling could possibly compete with Kansas. It would be a musical massacre, the equivalent of a bar band having to follow the Rolling Stones. Once again, I was punished (happily) for my preconceptions.
A year ago, I saw this band perform and labeled it a charming time-capsule act, a fluff-filled trip down memory lane. Friday, I saw a potent rock engine firing on all cylinders. The band played a style of feel-good rock that comes from instincts honed on the road. After more than 30 years together, the Speedwagon seems to have become a machine fueled by chemistry. And while the songs remain firmly entrenched in the boy-loves-girl tradition, Speedwagon plays them with the vigor required to keep them fresh.
My only complaint would be the obviously canned between-song banter by lead singer Kevin Cronin. It's 2002, and "Hellooo Augusta, ready to have a good time tonight" just doesn't carry the weight it once did.
Kansas and REO Speedwagon will probably never have a catalog-clearing renaissance that catapults them back into the music mainstream. But that doesn't matter. Both bands seem comfortable with their place in the world. Their job is to go out and entertain the fans who have followed them through the years with earnest, honest rock 'n' roll. And pass on a single, simple truth:
Rock has no sell-by date.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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