Words by Mark Dean || Photos by Shayne Friessner-Day
An unusual pairing I thought when this tour was first announced – legendary U.S. band, REO Speedwagon, primarily known for their melodic ballads of the eighties era – with the British boogie Masters, Status Quo. A strange combo and package indeed! Quo were my first live show attended way back in 1982 at the young age of 15 when they played my local town leisure centre. Back then they were touring an album also called 1982. They are a band that I have been fervently supporting and regularly attending live tours over the years, and my live total now lies at 25+. REO Speedwagon are a band that I have long admired and not just for their ballads, but have never actually seen their live show as the band don’t often play dates on this side of the pond. As this tour has been termed “the last electric shows” by Quo, it would also prove to be quite emotional for many Quo diehards who have been following them for many years. Unfortunately, the tour was also hit hard with the withdrawal of Quo legendary singer/guitarist Rick Parfitt for health reasons. Certainly, it would have been great to wish Rick a fond farewell for all his years of active service in the band but sadly that was just not possible. Stepping into his huge shoes with balls of steal and riffs aplenty would be Richie Malone from Dublin.
I was initially filled with a sense of confusion on first entering the arena earlier in the day for both bands’ soundcheck. I mentioned earlier that I’ve seen Quo many times but never in a seated venue. Many fans, including myself, are slightly older than when we first started seeing them live – that much is certainly true. However, rock shows in my humble opinion should never be seated – it impacts negatively on the sense of community spirit. My reservations were borne out as the evening progressed. It was, however, encouraging to see from my great vantage point that many fans had actually left the local bars to come in to witness the support band and also the special guests before the headliners.
First up were female trio, The Lounge Kittens, from Southampton – described on their own Facebook page as “rock chicks in disguise who perform popular songs with a twist in a 3-part harmony.” Yeah, indeed something different. Entertaining certainly, they seemed to have limited appeal to the large arena rock audience. A bizarre and quite eclectic selection of cover songs were included in their set and there is certainly no disputing their combined musical talents. However, I feel they would have appealed more in a much smaller venue as the larger arena stage impacted negatively on their quirky performance.
Hitting next was REO Speedwagon stepping right back through their musical history from the opening number off their 1976 album, R.E.O., “Keep Pushin” – the band were still enjoying the show even if it appeared that most the audience were unfamiliar with their song catalogue. Returning to another classic ballad and the soundtrack to many relationships with “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and yes, finally a faint spark of recognition had connected with the members of the audience. It had to be stated at this point that the REO stage crew had done a quite sterling job during the day in a professional and seasoned approach that ensured the band sounded as good as they possibly could. While Kevin Cronin regaled us with tales of the bands early days playing bars, they then delivered a sublime version of “Son of a Poor Man” – it was clear that that bar band spirit remained present in terms of the delivery, enthusiasm, and passion of playing music. The stages may have gotten considerably larger since those days but the band’s honest approach and sense of natural enjoyment clearly resonated. I was glad that the band had decided to include the hard hitting “Back on the Road Again,” which quickly laid to rest that REO were solely a melodic ballad-only act. I love the guitar-driven track and it was quite a pleasure to hear it being performed live for my first time. As a long-standing fan, I certainly felt that their performance was fully deserving of a much better response in terms of audience reaction. Maybe it was the seated concert, perhaps just the coupling with a band that attracted a different and more devoted fan base. Kevin Cronin had indicated to me in an interview before the show that the Quo tour would see them playing to more people in larger venues than they could have hoped to do while just playing as their own headlining act. Unfortunately, on this showing I feel that they would not have made much inroads into that hardcore Quo fan base. For me personally, it was a joy to witness them playing live for the first time in the UK but maybe another tour would have been a better option.
The night’s headliners were, as I have already indicated, a name very familiar to me. Sadly, minus Rick Parfitt and with a further emotional link in that it was quite possibly the last time that I would be seeing them live. Disappointingly, the arena was not fully sold out for what would be an historic farewell electric tour. Well, I did once attend another Status Quo farewell tour way back in 1984. Opening with the classic “Caroline,” it was clear from the outset how good Richie Malone was and what a fantastic job he was doing within the band. I am not going to get into the pros and cons of the band’s decision to appoint a replacement for the tour. Obviously, business contracts had to be fulfilled. Only to add that due to the popularity of the current set of dates that already further dates were being added for the band into 2017. It appears that there will be no returning to the “regular” job as yet for Richie Malone. I had the pleasure pre-tour of doing an interview with the guitarist with a massive weight on his shoulders. Sharing vocal duties for the “Rick-parts” between bassist Rhino Edwards on “Rain,” and keys-man Andy on “Whatever You Want” helped to flesh out the bands live sound. Returning to my Quo memories, one thing that was standard at a live concert was the sense of community and even family spirit during the course of the show. There were specific chants at particular points of the show, even set parts to jig and dance or bounce to.
I feel that the seated concert removed the element of connection between band and audience and impacted on the show’s enjoyment. Whether it was solely due to that or just an older audience who were more reserved in their vocalising, I don’t know. While I still was standing, singing along to much of the set, playing the part of air guitarist like the young kid of my youth, many of the crowd were content just to sit and watch. The classics were suitably and excellently delivered, so the set list certainly wasn’t the issue or an element to blame. Francis Rossi was still the guitar genius that he always had been, albeit like many of the audience members devoid of flowing locks of their youth. The band had gotten older like the audience, but while they still gave their all, the fans appeared to be very muted in their response. I expect a Quo gig to be a huge sing-a-long from start to finish, with air guitars being played and the heads shaken. Devoid of those elements it did seem to be slightly lacking. The sense of community was taken out of the equation: the single element that could always be a given at a Quo show. I feel that the Manchester crowd could have served up a much more fitting farewell to the departure of such a legendary iconic act that had contributed so much to their lives. Quo brought the party as always…the fans just didn’t join in the celebration of their legacy.