We love classic rock

Midwest embraces 'meat and potatoes' music

Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw of Styx, and Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon.
Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw of Styx, and Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon.

If it’s a classic rock tour, it will play in Peoria.

And Flint. And Chicago. And Fort Wayne. And certainly in Toledo, which has more than its share of classic rock bands roll through town.

The shared love between the Midwest and classic rock is so strong that Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagon frontman, suggests a merger of the names.

“It’s been named classic rock but it could just as easily be called Midwest rock,” Cronin said in a recent phone interview to promote tonight’s REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Ted Nugent triple bill at Huntington Center.

“It’s certainly not of New York or L.A. It really is of the heartland. That’s where our biggest concerts draws are, that’s where most of our fans are. I think the music does represent the music of the Midwest. It just kind of happened that way.”

Happened yes, but it’s not by default. Many of classic rock staples have roots in the Midwest and often write about their experiences growing up in the region.

Cronin is from Chicago, for example, and wrote most of the Illinois band’s biggest songs while living there.

“Classic rock is kind of meat and potatoes rock. It’s not fancy, it’s not intellectual, it’s not trendy — it’s really of the people,” he said. “There’s a tradition to it, there’s a relateability to it. I’m a Midwest guy; any music that I write it comes from that sensibility.”

In addition to REO Speedwagon, tourmates Styx are from Chicago and Nugent is from Detroit — hence The Midwest Express tour moniker. Other classic rock artists with regional ties include Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad (Michigan), John Mellencamp (Indiana), Chicago and Cheap Trick (Chicago, and a Chicago suburb), Joe Walsh (Ohio), and Boston founder and creative force Tom Scholz (born in Toledo and raised in Ottawa Hills).

For these and other classic rockers, the region can be a quasi home-field advantage, where “artists get a more favorable response from [the] Midwest audience” than elsewhere, said concert promoter John Nittolo.

“It all depends on what the act is,” he said. “Bob Seger is playing Madison Square Garden. If you’re talking REO Speedwagon and Styx, they’re not playing Madison Square Garden. They’re playing the Beacon Theatre.”

But even Seger isn’t above playing to favorable conditions. The Detroit native and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer launched consecutive national tour openers at the Huntington.

That’s not a coincidence, either, said Mark Benson, a longtime Toledo radio disc jockey who anchors weekdays mornings from 5 to 10 a.m. on Toledo’s classic rock station, WXKR-FM, 94.5.

“We knew Seger before anybody else did: Toledo, Detroit, Flint,” he said. “It’s home away from home here.”

Toledo has proven to be a successful tour stop for almost all classic rock artists.

In the 16 years Nittolo has been booking area concerts, he’s “taken my lumps in Toledo,” he said, including poor-selling shows by 1990s-era bands Nine Inch Nails and Counting Crows. But ticket sales have never been a concern for the estimated 150 such classic rock tours he’s brought to town — including the Huntington Center’s first REO Speedwagon-Styx show in Feb., 2010, as well as the Steve Miller and Gregg Allman bill nearly two years ago, and the more recent ZZ Top appearance at the Stranahan Theater. None of his classic rock shows have bombed, he said. Which in large part explains their popularity for promoters.

Of the 48 concerts at the Huntington Center since it opened Oct., 2009, classic rock and country acts have accounted for more than half of the shows, 12 and 13, respectively. In that time, only arena opener Lynyrd Skynyrd failed to sell. That show, in fact, was canceled about a week before the concert, with only about 1,600 tickets sold. While the official explanation was blamed on “scheduling issues,” a replacement date was never rescheduled.

“Really, that’s the exception to the rule, the only show that didn’t perform very well,” said SMG general manager Steve Miller. “All the other shows, especially classic rock and country, have done very well for us.”

Miller refers to classic rock and country music as the arena’s “bread and butter,” attracting “a traditional and loyal audience” who identify with the songs about the Midwest experience — see Styx’s “Blue Collar Man,” for example.

Cronin also noted similarities in the two fan bases, and said that REO Speedwagon keyboardist and co-founder Neal Doughty has a theory that classic rock is really the new country.

“Not musically, but just in as much as it’s long lasting,” he said. “It’s the music of heartland, and it’s another alternative.”

Looking at this summer’s concert line-up, Chicago visits the Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre on Aug. 28, while Nittolo has booked three classic rock acts at Centennial Terrace in Sylvania: Cooper on July 9, Doobie Brothers on July 10, and The Happy Together Tour — 2013, featuring The Turtles with Flo & Eddie, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & The Raiders, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, on Aug. 8.

And while there’s no denying the popularity of the format, there’s also no ignoring its demise — if not in popularity then certainly by more natural causes: age.

Nittolo is 59, a Baby Boomer who was a hippie in the 1960s and played in bass guitar in a few rock bands in the 1970s. Just as the Naples, Fla.,-based promoter sees the inevitable end to his own career, he knows the same will happen for many of the acts he promotes.

So what will he do when classic rock is no more?

“I quit with them. I quit promoting,” he joked, before turning more serious. “I do young stuff now and some country, but let’s just say it will take a bite out of what I do and how many shows I do in the course of a year. It might be reduced significantly.”

REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Ted Nugent perform tonight at Huntington Center in downtown Toledo. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 7. Tickets are $39.50, $49.50, $59.50, and available at the Huntington Center box office, 500 Jefferson Ave., all Ticketmaster outlets, www.ticketmaster.com, and 1-800-743-3000.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.