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Styx, REO Speedwagon + Ted Nugent Bring High Octane ‘Midwest Rock ‘N Roll Express’ to Ohio

Jamie Squire/ Skip Bolen/ Michael Loccisano, Getty Images

The roar of the crowd was surprisingly deafening on Saturday evening when Styx frontman Tommy Shaw asked how many in attendance were seeing the group for the first time. It was a moment which provided proof positive that classic rock continues to cross over into new generations.

From one angle, the response demonstrates the power of the radio dial, as it seemed very likely that there were probably a few people there who had never purchased a single album from Styx, REO Speedwagon or Ted Nugent. Accordingly, the setlists on the night catered heavily to the casual fans, dishing out many familiar hits with the occasional deep cut (‘Man In The Wilderness’ from Styx, hell yeah!) spiked in for the hardcore fans.

That was the common thread between the three acts, because although Ted Nugent might seem to be oil in the water populated by Styx and REO Speedwagon on paper, he had no less of a visible presence on the airwaves during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It just happens that what he was putting down was frequently a hell of a lot louder.

During Saturday night’s edition of the ‘Midwest Rock ‘N Roll Express’ tour at Blossom Music Center, near Cleveland, the Nuge (reloaded with one-time vocalist Derek St. Holmes back in the fold) delivered a positively ‘Stormtroopin’ 50-minute stomp through his catalog that left none of the essentials – ‘Free-For-All,’ ‘Just What the Doctor Ordered,’ ‘Wango Tango,’ etc. – out of the mix. Conversation was short, brisk and to the point, but since this is ‘Terrible’ Ted we’re talking about, it was also highly quotable. A spirited run through ‘Wang Dang Sweet Poon-Tang,’ for example, was dedicated to “all of the Midwest p—y right there,” as Nugent gestured with his finger pointed into the crowd.

There were good natured jabs by Nugent, directed at Styx and REO and all of the related ballads that would follow his set later in the evening. While Nugent fired plenty of those verbal arrows, the intended targets were more than happy to answer with their own firepower. REO Speedwagon vocalist Kevin Cronin, casually dressed down in a white t-shirt and black jeans combo that almost seemed like it had been borrowed from Margaritaville, quipped that while Nugent might have had a “number one love song” with ‘Cat Scratch Fever,’ he was pretty sure that their own ballad, ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling,’ had snuck its way into the Top Ten as well.

REO Speedwagon’s set provided the first of several moments where it was almost like a real-life illustration of ‘Monster Ballads’ coming to life, with guitarist Dave Amato strumming a mystically contemplative intro on his double neck guitar which opened up into the familiar opening chords of ‘Time For Me to Fly.’ Their 75 minute set would also bring plenty of similar flashback worthy experiences and the occasional detour into the obscure, with REO reaching back 40 years to the ‘T.W.O.’ album in one choice moment to pull out the album closing ‘Golden Country,’ a big nod to former REO guitarist Gary Richrath, who was an important part of the rock edge the band displayed in their songwriting during the early years.

Styx brought it all home in fine fashion with a set that mixed humor (Shaw: “we are definitely a pre-internet band”) with hits (‘Blue Collar Man,’ ‘Too Much Time on My Hands,’ ‘The Grand Illusion’) and during ‘Lady,’ several people even took things old school, pulling out their lighters. Keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, the band’s replacement for onetime frontman Dennis DeYoung here in the “Internet” age, took the audience through a classic rock magic carpet ride, throwing out snippets of various FM radio favorites, starting with the famous piano solo from ‘Layla,’ moving to ‘Pinball Wizard,’ dropping in familiar riffs from the Rolling Stones, Queen, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, along with a bizarre Beezelbub name check in the midst of it all. But perhaps, it was appropriate, because rock and roll is the devil’s music after all, right?

So where was Gowan going with all of this? Oh, it was an elaborate invitation to all, to ‘Come Sail Away,’ of course. Cue more lighters, couples dancing, some with roses and an eventual climax that featured smoke machines on overdrive, searing guitars melded with bone-stripping drumming by Todd Sucherman and the Styx logo floating on top of a schizophrenic mash of images.

While Ted Nugent might have seemed most likely to have the rock and roll advantage, Styx and REO Speedwagon demonstrated that they could more than hold their own. The ‘Midwest Rock ‘N Roll Express’ tour proved to be aptly named and by the time the last guitar pick had been thrown and the final encore had faded away, it’s likely that more than a few in the audience were pulling out their smartphones to look for their chance to stow away as passengers to catch the next stop.

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