Reverse is fine, but forward's necessary for REO Speedwagon

Everyone has a past. If you're a rock band, how do you reconcile that past with the necessity of a genre that wants to keep swimming forward, sharklike, to the Next Big Thing?

Well, if you're Kevin Cronin, longtime front man for REO Speedwagon, you revel in the power of nostalgia and the disposable income of folks who were rocking in the 1970s and '80s — who used to play air or tennis-racquet guitar to "Ridin' the Storm Out."

But you also keep banging out new music, as a way of clearing the heart and mind and taking your own nostalgia trip to the times when you could hit open-mike night at a club like Chicago's Earl of Old Town, and take your risks for free.

"Those were places where you could go as a young songwriter, and you could walk in there and get an opening slot or an open-mike night," says Cronin. "And you'd go there and sing your original songs, and people would pay attention. Would give you a chance to hone your craft. They were such a great place to really learn how to be a songwriter."

REO Speedwagon joins with fellow '80s rocker Pat Benatar in a concert Tuesday at Intrust Bank Arena.

Cronin and his bandmates live in Los Angeles now, but are from Chicago. He grew up in the suburb of Oak Lawn as the weird kid with the long hair and funny clothes who played guitar all the time. And like Chicago, which many describe as a giant small town, there's an openness, a "howdy, stranger" Midwestern sensibility to REO Speedwagon's music.

Which doesn't escape the fact that REO has been doing this for more than 30 years, probably in front of a lot of the same people.

What's up with that? How does playing "Keep on Loving You" for the 9,423,222nd time still work?

"We have a core of 10 or so songs that if we don't play, there will be an angry mob at our tour bus after the show," says Cronin.

"But as quarterback of the band, I can call some audibles, so to speak, songs that I can call out, based on the vibe of the crowd. I always like to surprise the sound or lighting man, or break into something surprising.

"We're always tweaking arrangements, changing little things, always trying to improve it. If you paint a picture and hang it in a museum, it's done. With a song, you can always change a little thing later."

In interviewing Cronin, what struck me the most is the professionalism of veteran bands. Cronin understands that the most effective way to keep people coming back to hear "Music Man" is to never forget what it was like to be that kid on the club stage.

"When people come to see us, they're surprised that it's not just a trip down memory lane," says Cronin. "When we play in Waukegan and Joliet (Ill.), we play a set with brand-new songs.

"I feel like we have to, even though people are buying tickets to hear the old songs, it's important to do what I did as a kid, to walk out there with an acoustic guitar and play a brand-new song that nobody's ever heard. Whether you do that in front of 50 people or 5,000, there's nothing like it."

If you go

reo speedwagon & pat benatar

Where: Intrust Bank Arena, 500 E. Waterman

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

How much: Tickets $39.50-$59.50 available at the arena box office or Select-A-Seat outlets. Charge by phone, 316-755-SEAT, online at www.selectaseat.com.