REO Speedwagon have rolled through more than a year of changes, weathering the lengthy pandemic and finally making their way back to the stage. Being able to get back out there and “just kick some ass” again was a really good feeling, says REO singer-songwriter Kevin Cronin.

But they also moved through a number of emotional moments. Among them, a celebratory feeling hung in the air as they played through some of Cronin’s earliest collaborations from the early ‘70s with late REO guitarist Gary Richrath, who passed away in 2015.

It had been nearly 16 months since the band’s last performance in Effingham, Ill. on March 13, 2020 — and one might say, that’s too “effing” long. For their return to action, the band, themselves born on Illinois soil in Champaign, came back to the state for a show (on July 1) in Aurora at RiverEdge Park.

Putting some additional "icing on top of the cake," the members of REO received a celebratory key to the city backstage.

As the group's current tour moved on to Cedar Rapids, Ia., we took a moment to catch up with Cronin and find out how their first show back went.

Watch REO Speedwagon Perform 'Keep Pushin'' in Aurora on July 1, 2021.

After a pandemic year, tell me about the experience of going back on stage for the first time. How was it different from what you’ve gotten used to in the past?

Well, it was different in almost every way possible. The things that used to come second nature, like packing my suitcase and every little thing — I walked into my dressing room and looked at my wardrobe case and I’m like, “I used to know every t-shirt!” You know, “This one fits a certain way.” I was like a fish out of water. Fortunately, we did have the foresight to book the Thousand Oaks Civic Plaza Theatre for a couple of weeks. We loaded in there and were able to rehearse in an actual venue. We don’t normally do that. Normally, we rehearse at a rehearsal facility in Los Angeles. We figured it had been so long since we’d been on stage that it would be a good idea to actually rehearse on an actual stage. We did two full weeks of rehearsal. That’s the most we’ve rehearsed in 30 years. [laughs] But it was really a good thing that we did, and it paid off last night in Aurora.

With your Illinois history, it must have been special for you to do the first show back in Aurora.

It was amazing. You know, it was a sold-out show, outdoors with about 7,000 people. Just strapping out a guitar and walking out on stage for the first time, the reaction of the Illinois rock fans was indescribable. I had so much emotion going through me. I was grateful that we were able to make a comeback like we did. The reaction from the crowd, they were so happy to be there. The truth was, none of us, the band, the crew or the audience, had done this since last March. I think everyone was just happy to be back. Live music is actually something that, I didn’t know when it was ever going to come back. It seemed like it was so far in the future. And then suddenly, there it was, man. We were there. We knew it was either going to be like riding a bike or falling off a bike. In general, we stayed up on the bike for most of the show last night!

Watch REO Speedwagon perform 'Roll with the Changes' in Aurora on July 1, 2021

What was your favorite moment of the night?

As a band, we’ve been touring so long that this time off kind of gave us an opportunity to hit the reset button in some ways. If you’re fortunate enough to have hits, as we have, your setlist starts to be kind of hit-centric. Because that’s what the majority of the audience is coming to see. But the Foo Fighters played a show in my hometown of Thousand Oaks at a club that’s owned by a friend of mine. I’m friendly with Dave [Grohl] and Taylor [Hawkins], so I went out and heard the Foo Fighters play. It was really great. You know, they’re such a great band.

But when I saw them play, it reminded me of REO Speedwagon from the ‘70s. Because that’s the kind of band we were when we first started. It inspired me to dig back into the 1972-1973 [period] during my first stint in the band and look up some of the songs from that era. My favorite part of the set last night was making it through this 20-minute segment of songs that we recorded when I was in my early 20s. The fact that we were able to get up there and just kick some ass last night, it felt really good.

I’m looking at the setlist now, and you guys pulled out some really vintage stuff. Anytime you get a chance to hear “Son of a Poor Man” or whatever it might be, is great.

“Son of a Poor Man,” that song, it’s Gary Richrath’s spirit. He wrote that song, and he was the son of a poor man. Playing that song just brings his spirit back to life. All three of those songs — we do “Son of a Poor Man, “Golden Country” and “Like You Do” right in a row — those are songs that Gary and I worked on together in the studio. You know, his guitar playing on “Golden Country” alone, that wah wah work that he did was just [incredible]. Not to take anything away from Dave Amato, because Dave’s been with us for over 30 years now and he’s incredible, just a great guy and a great player. You know, the thing about Gary is that he was one of the first real guitar heroes. He had it going on big time back then. It’s frustrating for me that Gary is not a bigger part of the conversation when you talk about the all-time great classic rock guitarists. He deserves to be up there with the rest of them. He was under-appreciated, but it’s just great to play that music and bring him back to life as we perform.

Watch REO Speedwagon perform 'Golden Country' in Aurora on July 1, 2021

How were things for you during the pandemic?

I had a chance to reconnect with my family. All three of my children had moved into apartments. Two were college students, and one was working. My daughter’s office shut down, so she was working remotely. Both of my boys, their campus shut down, so it was kind of silly for them to have apartments. Everybody moved home. So I had a year and a half of time with my family, the most time I’ve spent with them in our lives. So that’s a bond that will remain forever. I feel great sadness for the families who have had such hardship over the past year and a half and for anyone out there who lost a loved one. I can’t even imagine your pain, and I know that a lot of people had financial hardships. Hopefully people are getting back to work as the country opens up again.

We’ll be coming to your town soon to bring you some uplifting rock and roll music, and that’s what REO Speedwagon is about. We’ve always been about, you know, ride the storm out, keep pushin’, roll with the changes — that’s kind of our thing. So to come back after all of this time off and be back up there doing what we love to do, sharing our music — you know, it’s time, and I believe it’s safe.

We still have to be careful, obviously, but we had about 7,000 people last night, just going crazy, rockin’ and rollin’ and smilin’. It was a love fest. So that’s what we’ll be bringing to cities and towns all over the country for the next six months, and hopefully we’ll see y’all there!

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