On Sunday night, our Mid-Atlantic shed was the last stop for the Midwest Rock N Roll Express -- otherwise known as REO Speedwagon and Styx's turn to keep an eye on Ted Nugent.
The show, at the First Niagara Pavilion, is one of those bills you would have paid three times for in the late '70s, so it couldn't help but seem like a bargain at 20 bucks for the lawn. Still, up against a Penguins playoff game, the bargain didn't get a lot of takers.
Also, down a few key members, REO and Styx aren't playing with a full deck. Neither is Mr. Nugent who got the first call Sunday, partly because his wild antics have hurt his draw, partly because he never wrote a sissy power ballad.
It was 50 minutes of loud Motor City Madness from the white-bearded, camo-hatted Nuge, whose powers as a guitar hero are unparalleled in his own mind and still pretty darn good to the rest of us. He hit the stage with "Free for All" and kept his finger on the trigger through "Wang Dang Sweet P----" and a funky cover of "Hey Baby," with Derek St. Holmes providing the rangy vocal.
"I love the REO, I love the Styx, but I love this [stuff] better," Nuge said, pointing to his American flag guitar. He also pledged his love for dead stuff, namely bears and deer, which, truthfully, is better than him saying foreigners. He stated his worldview as, "The whole world [stinks] ... but America [stinks] less!"
He bragged about writing some of the world's guitar licks, then backed up that claim with "Cat Scratch Fever" and "Strangehold," complete with multiple killer solos. The intro to that song bordered on treason -- he doesn't like Barack Obama, in case you don't know, and neither do a lot of his fans, judging by the applause -- but like he said many times, "freedom ain't free, you have to fight for it." In that vein, he makes as much use of the First Amendment as he does the Second.
And in his own weird way, he's both a rib festival act and the most relevant of the three.
REO Speedwagon, on a slickly designed stage, cranked the guitars too (courtesy of Dave Amato, playing Gary Richrath's old parts) while countering it with a lot more soaring melody from white-haired Kevin Cronin.
REO reached into the archives for such rousing heartland rockers as "Keep Pushin'," "Like You Do" and the overwrought "Golden Country" (with his own freedom speech and the Statue of Liberty on the screen) and satisfied the sweeter tooth with the songs that got on your mom's easy listening station: "Take it on the Run," "Can't Fight this Feeling" and "Keep on Loving You."
Transitional hit "Roll with the Changes" and the Bruce Hall-sung "Back on the Road Again" turned into long furious jams, as did "Ridin' the Storm Out," the FM classic that put REO on the map.
Last up was Styx, the blue-collar art-rockers that power the Steelers defense ("Renegade") and provided Cartman his greatest hit ("Come Sail Away"). On a stage exploding with color, the Chicago band delivered those favorites along with hard rocking opener "Blue Collar Man," "The Grand Illusion," "Lady" and weed anthem "Light Up."
With its synth-powered grandiosity, Styx practically begs to be a classic rock punchline, and yet the band always brings it live. Even at the end of the tour, the three vocal attack of Lawrence Gowan (longtime replacement for Dennis DeYoung), Tommy Shaw and James Young was doing the Midwest proud.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2576 and on Twitter: scottmervis_pg.