Kevin Cronin from REO Speedwagon looks like he could still scrap a little bit.EXPAND
Kevin Cronin from REO Speedwagon looks like he could still scrap a little bit.
Jim Louvau

Chicago Versus REO Speedwagon: Death Match in the Desert

How awesome would it be if wildly popular bands who decided to tour together would open their shows by meeting each other for a no-holds-barred cage match to see who would be the opener, and who would close the show?

Rock 'n' roll heavyweights Chicago and REO Speedwagon are playing Ak-Chin Pavilion on Saturday, June 17, and the merger of these two titans of the '70s and '80s has the potential to bring a swirl of emotion to anyone who has paid even a modicum of attention to popular American music over the past five decades. They are both big bands with multiple touring members, and their duel to the death (or at least who goes on first), would be epic.

To some, this pairing may be one of the more revolting things they could consider. Can’t you hear it now?

“Those are bands my grandparents listen to … eww!” could roll right off the tongue of the average teenage Kanye or Kesha devotee.

To others, the idea of sweating your appendages off to Chicago and REO, as they are affectionately referred to quite often, on a hot summer Phoenix night, sounds like a great excuse to drink a lot of Bud Light and whoop it up. While Chicago received major notoriety first with hits like “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” and “Beginnings” in 1970, when the band was still known as Chicago Transit Authority, none of their records have sold as many as REO’s big hit, 1980’s Hi Infidelity, which is certified diamond (10 million copies sold). Both bands have had multiple singles hit No. 1 in the U.S., and both have had a lot of lineup changes over the years, but that is not where the similarities end.

Being incredibly popular can take its toll on even the strongest bands, and a revolving door of members is another thing Chicago and REO Speedwagon share with one another. REO Speedwagon has had well over 20 “official” members, and Chicago several times that if you include all of the musicians who have toured with the band over the years. The lineup changes, though, some of which having had significant impact on the sound of each band, have not hampered their popularity with fans of either the soothing, jazz-oriented soft rock sounds of adult contemporary music that Chicago excels at, or the more straight-up, midwestern America rock 'n' roll sound of REO. Each band continue to sell records and concert tickets at relatively brisk rates, so why not get together and jam it out for the presumably khaki-loving masses?

To their credit, each band have had measurable success with at least five members handling lead vocal duties over the years, which speaks volumes about the musicianship and songwriting talent. Peter Cetera, who was a founding member of Chicago, sang many of their best-known songs, including “If You Leave Me Now,” and “Hard To Say I’m Sorry.” Unfortunately, he will probably never play with them again — he left the band in 1985. Ironically, Michael Bryan Murphy, who handled the vocals (and keyboards) on REO Speedwagon’s first hit, “Ridin’ The Storm Out,” got a credit on Chicago’s 2002 anthology, The Chicago Story: The Complete Greatest Hits, for programming cowbell on multiple tracks, including soft-rock classic “Baby, What A Big Surprise.” Murphy left REO Speedwagon after the utterly forgettable This Time We Mean It, which came out in 1975.

Regardless of why you might love or hate these bands, you have to tip your cap to each of them as they have existed in one form or another for over 50 years, and created some of the most iconic songs in rock 'n' roll history. From power ballads like REO’s “Keep On Loving You,” to contemplative jazzy interludes like Chicago’s “Saturday In The Park,” to straight-up rockers like “25 or 6 to 4” (Chicago) and “Don’t Let Him Go” (REO Speedwagon), there is a little something for everyone. Remember to get there  early, just in case they decide to rumble.

Chicago and REO Speedwagon play Ak Chin Pavilion on Sunday, June 17. Tickets are $19 and up at livenation.com.

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