By Blake Baxter
Of course we went to it. I mean, how could we possibly miss out on such a unique experience?
Generally, when a bunch of past-their-prime bands get together and go on tour, it isn’t too difficult to dismiss the whole thing as a cynical cash grab. But when bands, regardless of their current level of relevancy, actually unite for a worthy cause, it begets something closer to the opposite of cynicism. Last week’s Rock to the Rescue Benefit Concert, headlined by classic rock veterans Styx and REO Speedwagon, was a sincere effort, a soaring show, and it couldn’t have been for a more worthy cause.
Rock to the Rescue is both the name of the concert and of the nonprofit organization that was founded by Styx’s Tommy Shaw and REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin. It began in 2002, when Styx organized a series of benefit concerts to aid the families of the victims of 9/11. Styx, REO Speedwagon and an all-star lineup of aging rockers, including Foreigner, Bad Company, Journey, Kansas and Lynyrd Skynyrd teamed up to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause. After their massive success, Styx decided to continue their efforts, promoting causes such as music education, animal welfare, health and well being, according to the organization’s website. In addition, the band raises funds for people – and communities –in need whenever disaster strikes. To date, Styx has played over 1,600 shows under the Rock to the Rescue banner, and most recently provided support for the victims of the Boston Bombing and the Texas fertilizer plant explosion this past spring.
Last month, when a series of deadly tornados devastated various parts of the Midwest, it was a no-brainer for the two Illinois-bred bands to reach out and lend a helping hand. Less than a week after the storm, the concert was booked. Styx and REO Speedwagon, two of the most adored rock bands of the mid-70s to the mid-80’s, were to play a benefit show in Bloomington, IL, with the promise of more bands to be announced, and with all proceeds going to the victims of the tornados. On a macro level, it was a way to support an admirable cause and give back to communities, like that of Washington, IL, that have been ravaged by the unstoppable force of nature. On a personal level, it was a chance to physically see and experience bands that to most in my generation exist only in the confines of classic rock radio. Perhaps above all, though, it was a powerful remedy for a community in much need of healing and escape.
My group, which consisted of Brent, myself, and a few other of our concert-frequenting friends, got caught up by (obscenely) slow service at a nearby bar and grill, and thus arrived late. We missed the opening act, Brushfire, in its entirety. Brushfire is an up and coming local act, which won Wildhorse Saloon’s “Battle for the Saddle” competition over 300 other bands in Nashville, Tennessee last year. That is about all I know about them, personally, but luckily my dad was in attendance to report to me that “they looked thrilled to be there,” so there is also that. We also missed the next act, Head East, best known for their 1975 hit and classic rock radio staple, “Never Been Any Reason”. Head East is another band with strong Illinois roots. They played their first gig in Carbondale, formed their core lineup in the Champaign-Urbana area and recorded their first album in one of the communities affected by the storm, Pekin. It was a little disappointing to miss them – I would have loved to scream the words “SAVE MY LIFE, I’M GOIN’ DOWN FOR THE LAST TIME” – but I’m still glad they were there.
Next came the 80’s rock band Survivor, forever immortalized by the 80’s blockbuster Rocky III ,and from – you guessed it – the state of Illinois! We unfortunately missed a good chunk of this set, too. Generally, I hate and do everything I can to prevent being late for concerts; however, when I am, I seem to have a knack for arriving at the perfect moments. (A year and a half ago, my friends and I struggled to find parking at the United Center, and managed to walk into an electrifying rendition of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” by Arctic Monkeys. It was phenomenal.) This time, we were seated right as Survivor launched into its signature song, the anthemic “Eye of the Tiger”. From the first strike of the drums and flash of the lights, we knew we were in for something special.
Following Survivor, the emcee of the night’s festivities, comedian Larry the Cable Guy of Blue Collar Comedy Tour fame, took the stage. Born David Lawrence Whitney in the heartland, “Larry” embraced popular Southern and redneck tropes and became one of the most popular comedy acts of the last decade and a half. For this particular occasion, though, Larry was the comedic curator, whose job was to chew up dead time between sets, with his trademark catch phrases and expected mix of potty and observational humor. Even if he isn’t your cup of tea – or can of Keystone, perhaps – he proved to be competent at this task. The inordinate amount of instances in which he employed the words “butt,” “wiener” and “fart” would have provided much more amusement to my 14 year old self than my 22 year old self, but, no matter; the vast majority of the crowd was elated.
After much anticipation, the main event (or at least it was for me), Styx, took over and kicked their show off with a rollicking performance of the late-70’s rock gem, “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)”. Longtime lead guitarist and now-front man Tommy Shaw then graciously welcomed the crowd and gushed about what an honor it was to perform in the name of such a noble cause, before the band went into a string of synth-heavy jams, like “Foolin’ Yourself,” “The Grand Illusion,” and the always-delightful, “Too Much Time on My Hands” (Seriously, watch that music video – it’s a riot.) Conspicuously absent were the band’s sweet ballads like the early hit, “Lady” and their number one single, “Babe,” as well as the progressive weirdness of “Mr. Roboto,” but the steady diet of straightforward pop-rock was more appropriate and appealing for the circumstances. The band’s more dynamic crowd pleasers were inevitably on the way, but first came a fun piano and sing-along medley; chock full of classic covers: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) / Changes / Tiny Dancer / You Can’t Always Get What You Want / Fat Bottom Girls / Another Brick in the Wall.
Finally, the moment arrived. Styx nearly tore the coliseum down with incredible performances of the all-time great classic rock radio staples, “Renegade,” and especially, “Come Sail Away”. But then, because the concert was Styx, REO Speedwagon and (less-renowned) friends, and not just the two headliners, Ted Nugent showed up. The whole time I couldn’t decide if Nugent was more of a stereotype or an anachronism, but he definitely has elements of both. Every time he opened his mouth, I held my breath, anticipating a YouTube-friendly but inappropriate for the moment, political rant. Thankfully, he left politics out of it, for the most part, and kept everyone’s focus on a night that was about relief. Between songs, he raved about the virtues of American ideals and the collective resolve of the Heartland. The crowd couldn’t get enough, even when he was dramatically spouting nonsensical hogwash like: “This right here (the concert/the Midwest/rock and roll?), is why God created the Constitution and the Bill of Rights!”
Nugent played a Damn Yankees song with his former bandmate, Shaw (and the rest of Styx) and growled his way through Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and his own “Cat Scratch Fever” before Larry returned to signify that REO’s time was coming. REO Speedwagon started off with the Kevin Cronin-penned “Keep Pushin,” followed by their hit single “Take it on the Run” from their 1981 breakthrough album HI Infidelity, and the smooth Gary Richrath-penned, “Golden Country”. Overall, the band was a little less spry than Styx, but they were still plenty enthusiastic. Midway through their set they were joined by popular adult contemporary singer Richard Marx, who – okay, I’ll be honest, I completely forgot who he was until he got to the sappy chorus of “Right Here Waiting,” and then I vaguely remembered that I’ve heard that song plenty of times in, like, the dentist’s office or something. At any rate, Marx, it turns out, is from Chicago, and like so many others, was prompted to act after being deeply moved by the events of November 17. He made a heartfelt speech, before welcoming his son on stage to sing another song (“Don’t Mean Nothing”) with REO and him.
When Marx turned it back over to REO, the band started hitting its stride. They seamlessly alternated between soft rock ballads and arena rock jams. The songs played – “Time for Me to Fly,” “Roll with the Changes,” etc. – were all about personal love and loss, but their titles seemed to fit the themes of the night. And then they closed with the only song possible. Before the show, my friend asked “Do you think they’ll play ‘Ridin’ the Storm Out’ or is it too soon?” It sounded like a joke, yet it was a serious question. But of course they closed with it; that’s what the whole night was about, and reminders were everywhere. Tommy Shaw’s daughter’s speech, the victims and their families and friends sitting in the front rows, the boys who received signed guitars from the band after losing theirs in the wreckage, and every bright orange t-shirt in the building that read “Washington Strong”. The actual storm was long over, but the community was and still is riding out and recovering from the wave of after-effects, and the damage left in its wake. It was a terrific rock concert, but it was about so much more, and that is why it raised $300,000, and why “Ridin’ the Storm Out” was such a fitting conclusion (not to mention they played it with original guitarist Gary Richrath).
The show wasn’t over just yet, though. Styx, REO, everyone featured in the night’s festivities, as well as the first responders from the storm, took the stage for an encore performance of Joe Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends”. The message, an obvious one: Together we can overcome anything. No one said rock and roll or pop music had to be subtle; no one said it had to be complex either. Music doesn’t necessarily need to be substantial to be rich. In fact, sometimes the simplest things are the most powerful, and the sweetest provide the most relief.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.