REO's Bruce Hall: Rocking at the Moondance Jam

This interview first appeared in Goldmine Magazine in 2013.
The interview was conducted by Classic Rock Revisited’s Jeb Wright.
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Goldmine caught up with REO Speedwagon bassist Bruce Hall to discuss the band’s latest release, Live at the Moondance Jam, as well as about REO’s interesting history.  Hall, the ‘new’ bass player in the band, grew up with, and even played in a band with REO’s original guitarist Gary Richrath, before he finally was asked to join as a member.  He co-wrote a song for them and were good friends with them when he was asked to replace then bass player Gregg Philbin.  Hall agreed, learned the songs, moved out West and has never looked back.

Bruce brought to the band his good looks, Midwestern boy smile and his harder driving bass style, which, as luck would have it, fit in with REO’s plan to reach for the brass ring: Radio play and Platinum album sales.  Hall’s first album with the band was their classic You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tune a Fish.  In just a couple of years, he would ride the wave of Hi Infidelity into rock superstardom.  

It was not always easy for REO, as Hall admits, when discussing his friend Gary Richrath leaving the band and issues the plague him to this day.  It is a sad footnote on the band’s history and one that Hall still feels sad about. 

We also discuss the current band and their ability to bring in on live, as they did on the new release.  Oh yeah…we talk about big cats, goofy outfits and why it is a good idea to marry a Midwestern woman too.

Jeb: I went to a Catholic high school in Topeka, Kansas.  In the lunch room we had a jukebox and the nuns didn’t like it too much but they let us listen to music over our lunch period.  Every single day one of the songs that was played was “Ridin’ The Storm Out” by REO, the live version.  

Bruce: How cool is that?  When I was a kid just learning to play one of the only places to play was a Catholic church and they would open the hall up for teen dances. 

Jeb: Well, that is right before you joined REO but you’ve been playing the song for a few decades!  It was that love of the band that I had in high school that comes across on the Live at the Moondance Jam Blu-Ray. 

Bruce: You’re right about that.  It was St. Louis and Kansas City who were some of the biggest cities for us.  We are talking before Hi Infidelity; we always had a good crowd there.  

Jeb: To us hardcore early fans Hi Infidelity wasn’t a new thing.  We had been jamming on you guys forever.

Bruce: We had a lot of albums before that one.  It really is amazing. 

Jeb: I was there when Live at the Moondance Jam from filmed.  REO has a special relationship with that place.  Describe playing The Moondance Jam. 

Bruce: Well, Moondance is established.   It is a beautiful setting and the people come and they camp for like a week.   You know what I’m talking about since you’ve been there.  It’s beautiful and it is peaceful and everybody gets along.  They come to rock and they just rock out and all get along. 

The folks who put it on are wonderful to the bands.  It has become one of those places where we really look forward to going to.  I am looking very forward to doing it again next year but I am very glad that we got to record one.  We get such a great vibe from people there and that really made it a great place to record live.   

Jeb:  Even after thirty years does the crowd really make a difference to you when you are onstage?

Bruce: Oh you bet.  We look at the crowd as a member of REO Speedwagon.  You give to them and they give back to you and that is kind of the way it works.  That crowd at Moondance is one of the best at that as they make you feel so good for just being there. 

I am glad we have this project that we can share with everybody because it turned out great.  It turned out really good.  I’ve got some of the first footage of it and I made a little DVD for my son because he likes to play drums.  We watched it quite a bit as he likes to play along with it.  He knows the songs as well as we do…his is six years old.  He loves to turn on the Live at the Moondance Jam and we watch and he plays along.  It is great. 

Jeb:  I have seen REO many, many times and I was there at Moondance that night.  I interviewed you for the Jumbotron right before you took the stage.  You were amazing that night. 

Bruce: We love to play live and I think it comes across and that people pick up on it.  When we give to the folks and they see that we are being sincere with what we are doing then they enjoy it and they give it right back.  Usually by the end of the night we are all having a good time; the people in the crowd and the people on stage. 

Jeb:  I was in the pit where the stage cameras were while you were playing that night and I looked over to my friend next to me and I said, “These guys are on fire tonight.”

Bruce: We really were having one of our better nights and I think it had a lot to do with that place.  I like to think that we don’t have a bad night but sometimes we have really, really good night. 

Jeb: I have been to the Moondance Jam for many years and I see this happen with bands over and over and call it Moondance Magic. 

Bruce: I think you’re right.  It thinks it’s the setting.  People come there and I don’t know what they do during the days…

Jeb:  They sleep, Bruce, as they have been up all night. 

Bruce: [laughter] Well, they sleep all day and then they gear themselves up for the evening and they get ready.  When we showed up for that one everyone was just ready to go and I think everyone comes with the right attitude. They come to have a good time and that is why they have such a good time. 

Jeb: On the heels of this release are you nervous to live up to the performance when you return there in 2014?

Bruce: Heck no, I think it is more of a celebration, I think that is what it will be like.  I think it will be like, “We are back!”  A lot of people are like you and come there year after year.  Some of them may have even seen themselves on the thing if they look really close at the crowd shots. 

Jeb: When you go see REO Speedwagon live every song is a major hit.  Some people ask me if you think you get tired of playing them. 

Bruce: We never get tired of playing them.  We play them a little bit different every night. The songs are structured so that we know the parts we are supposed to play, as they are pretty much set, but we can find places to play things a little differently. 

After all of these years of playing REO songs, it never gets old.  Being on stage and playing is great. The traveling is the hard part but the playing is the easy part and I look forward to it.  I think everyone in the band feels that way.  We get a real joy out of playing live. 

Jeb: You have classic songs.  Do you ever as a fan, even though you’re on stage, think, “Damn, we’ve got a lot of really good songs.”

Bruce: [laughter] Sure, I really think that a lot.  I go, “Whoa, that’s a good one.”  And the next song I go, “Man, that’s a good one too.”  Truth be told, there are a lot more songs that we wish we could play but we don’t have enough time to play. 

Jeb:  I will put you on the spot.  Name some of those songs you would love to play.

Bruce:  I would like to do “Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight” as I really like that song.  I like “Only the Strong Survive.”  “Out of Season” we were doing when we were doing more songs off of the Hi Infidelity record but I would like to do that again. 

There is a song that Kevin wrote a long time ago that I would like to do called “Let Me Ride” and I would really like to do that song.  “Lightening” I think is a really cool song.  You can go way back and keep going as there are a ton of songs I would like to do. 

Jeb:   You’ve been in REO for over three decades but I have heard you described as “The new bass player in REO Speedwagon.”

Bruce:  I know [laughter].  I thought Gregg Philbin was a great bass player and I thought he played some really interesting and cool parts. 

Jeb: A lot of people don’t know that you knew REO before they were REO. 

Bruce: I knew them.  I played in a band with Gary before he was in REO and I played with Mike Murphy before he joined REO for a short amount of time. 

Jeb: Tell me about playing with Gary before REO.

Bruce: I played in a band called Feather Train back in Champagne, Illinois.  Gary moved there from Peoria and he was something else.  He wasn’t quite what he became.  He didn’t hit full stride until he got into REO Speedwagon, but you could tell that Gary was destined to become a great guitar player.  He was different at the time, too.  He was great. 

Jeb:  You co-wrote a song on the album Lost in a Dream

Bruce:  I co-wrote the song “Lost in a Dream” with Mike.  I wrote that almost in the same week that I wrote “Back on the Road Again.”  I was something like 17 or 18 years old back then.  I wrote the music part of the song and Mike wrote the lyrics. 

Jeb:  “Back on the Road Again” is your claim to fame but you wrote that very young. 

Bruce:  I was with Mike Murphy in a band called The One-Eyed Jacks back in Champlain. We were kind of a blues band.  When I first wrote “Back on the Road Again” it wasn’t a rock song like it is now.  It has a whole different feel.  Once the band got a hold of it they went, “If this is going to be an REO Speedwagon song then we are going to rock it out.”  That is what happened there. 

Jeb: In the early days, REO were a totally different sounding band as well. 

Bruce: They were a campus band and it wasn’t until…there was a guitar player named Steve Scorfina, who was more of a rock guy.  He played loud guitar and he was a different kind of guy at the time.  I don’t keep track of him anymore but once in a while I still hear about him. 

Back then he was this guy who carried his guitar with him everywhere.  He carried it without a case; he would just have it strapped on his back. You would see him around town and he had his guitar on him.  Somehow, it got broken, he dropped it, or it got knocked off and it hit the ground and it broke.  He took that as a sign that it was time for him to get out of the band.  He left REO Speedwagon and REO was just starting to become the big band on campus; this was during the late ‘60s. 

Gary, who was in my band at the time, saw an opening in REO Speedwagon and he had an idea of what he wanted to do.  He wanted to be in that band.  He literally chased them down and told them that he was their next guitar player.  That is a true story; he chased down a car…I think it was Alan [Gratzer] but it might have been Terry Luttrell. 

Gary and I hit it off really well from the very start.  Gary said to me, “One of these days we are going to play together again” and I’ll be damned we did.  I was playing a gig in Charleston, Illinois at a place called Ted’s Warehouse.  I had a break. I had to play four sets a night and it was the second break of the night and I was sitting around and they came to me and said that I had a phone call.  I picked up the phone and it was Gary and he goes, “Are you ready to join the band?”  I said, “What?”  He said, “Are you ready to join REO?”  I said, “You guys aren’t even around here anymore.”  He goes, “Yeah, you’ve got to move to California.” I said, “How much time do I have if I decide to do this?”  He said, “You’ve got a week.” 

I had a week and I moved to California.  I learned all of the songs in about five days and we were on the road.  It was right after the Live You Get What You Play for record was released; it had just come out. 

I don’t know all of the particulars of what happened to Gregg, but it was a great opportunity, so I decided to give it a go.  I knew them all and they had recorded one of my songs and I had kind of grown up and I knew most of their songs and I had heard them.  It all took off from there. 

Jeb:  You may be too humble but I think you brought something to the band.  You brought a rock attitude and a rock style of bass playing and a look to REO. 

Bruce: The band was getting ready to try some changes; musically as well as others things.  My first record with the band was You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish.  That as like their eighth album that they had made.  The band had built up a regional following around the Midwest but they were having a hard time breaking out of that. The only way to break out of that was to get more songs on the radio.  When I joined the band they were concentrating on making their songs tighter, before they had been making albums that were basically extended jams, like the song “Like You Do.”  If you listen to that song, it is a good example of the jamming.  You could hear that on FM and College Radio back then, but not on pop radio.  Hell, it is still a fun song to play though.  I love that song. 

We started having different songs like “Time for Me to Fly” and “Roll with the Changes” on the Tuna Fish record.  The songs were more radio friendly.  We thought we might possibly get some airplay. 

Jeb:  You brought something to that band musically with your style.  It was different that Gregg. 

Bruce:  I suppose you’re right.  I’d been playing bass since I had been 13 years old.  I knew what I was doing and it wasn’t hard.  I had worked with Gary before.  Working with Alan, Neal [Doughty] and Kevin [Cronin] was really easy and it really felt natural.  I play bass a little bit different than Gregg.  I believe more in holding down the bottom end. I don’t riff around as much as Gregg.  I like riffs and melodies.  Gregg played so many riffs that you didn’t even know what key the song was in at times.  I thought what he did was interesting.  I think that was a difference.  I was a songwriter too, so I knew where Kevin and Gary were coming from and that helped a little.  I suppose there was a little something that I brought to the whole thing. 

Jeb: I think the seeds for Hi Infidelity were sown on the Tuna Fish album. 

Bruce: Right, I think the Tuna Fish record had it not been…if we hadn’t chosen the songs that we’d chosen and recorded them in the way that we did…we had changed.  Gary and Kevin started producing the records without outside interference at that point.  That was the first album where we got to be in charge of the henhouse.  We got to present ourselves a little bit differently, which was really more of what we sounded like than the outside producers had envisioned we should sound like.  I think you’re right.  The songs on the Tuna Fish record were just a little bit of the future insight of what we would eventually do with Hi Infidelity

Jeb: While “Time for Me to Fly” and “Roll With the Changes” were not huge singles, I think in fifty years when people look back at who REO Speedwagon was, they are the songs they will talk about. 

Bruce: I agree.  I think that is exactly right.  When we play live one of the songs people seem to walk away loving is “Roll with the Changes.”  “Time for Me to Fly” they love too and it is one of my favorite songs to play live. 

Jeb: I am surprised at that as the bass line is very simple on that song. 

Bruce: No, it’s simple, but it serves the song.  Complicated bass parts, to me, if they fit in with the rest of the song then it is okay, but it they are just bass parts that are noodling about then you are just showing off and that doesn’t make any sense to me.  You have to serve the song as you are trying to make a song that can go on forever and become a part of somebody’s life.  If there is a bass break where I can show off then that is great but I don’t need to be doing that throughout the entire song. 

Jeb:  You were a young guy who got a big break and then the band got their big break.  Before REO you were a singer and songwriter.  With REO you had to back off and be a member of the band and not the main man. 

Bruce:  There is a temptation to go off and does a side project of my own stuff.  I have flirted with the idea before but I honestly get enough satisfaction doing what I am doing here.  I have never felt the need to go ahead and do that.  Some people like to do that to get it off their chest or they think there is something more they can do outside the band but I like to spend my energy just doing REO.  It is a part of Champaign to me, where I grew up.  It started there and I am very proud of this band.  I can’t imagine there is anything more that I could want.  It feels to me, every time we get on stage, that we represent our hometown. 

We have had all of this success through the years but I think we still look at ourselves as just guys who are friends and we know how lucky we were to actually have gotten what we have gotten.  I think we are still down to earth Midwestern kids. 

Jeb:  You’ve never turned your back on the fans.  Even at the height of your success I have never heard anyone say, “REO got too big for their britches.” 

Bruce: We try to be honest with ourselves and to be honest with our fans.  Who we are is what you see.  We are not trying to be anything more than what we are.  I have no problems being the guy who grew up in Illinois.  I think it’s an honor, actually.  It is who REO is.  One of the things that I think we do better than anything is that we kind of create this sound that sounds like the Midwest. 

Jeb: REO went from a rocking band that becomes known for ballads later on.  It was a tricky situation as Gary did not want the band to go that way. 

Bruce: We started to explore that side more around Hi Infidelity.  Kevin had that side of him and he was starting to write those kinds of songs.  He writes about things that affect him.  You can’t rock up every emotion.  “Keep On Loving You” was our first big number one hit, then we had “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” which did well.  They are love songs.  When you are working a song up and you are getting ready to record it then you have to do your best to respect the song and try to treat it well and give it its best chance.  Those songs were more piano oriented and they were tender love songs.

Gary wasn’t so big on ballads.  It wasn’t what he thought was the coolest idea in the world but he contributed to them a lot, honestly.  He did a great job on them but it wasn’t his cup of tea.  Gary wanted, more or less, to rock it up and I don’t blame him because we rocked as good as anybody.  It wasn’t a tug of war, it was just the fact that these songs were coming from Kevin.  Gary would, more or less, turn it up to 11 and rock.  There is a way to do both.

Jeb: Gary brought you into the band so it must have been awkward. 

Bruce: Oh yeah, the truth of the matter is that it was hard.  It was a difficult time only because of the fact that he is like my brother.  I love him to this day.  I hope the best for him, always.  He just needs…poor Gary…I don’t know how much you know but Gary can’t seem to get away from the demons; they just won’t let them be and he can’t seem to fight them off.  It has taken a toll on him. 

There was a time that we had to do something, as far as if we wanted to keep REO Speedwagon together, we had to make a change.  That is kind of how it went.  It is a sad thing to talk about still.  I miss Gary.  He is living in California and I don’t talk to him very often.  For a while he had a band called Richrath and they made a record but I don’t think it did much of anything. 

Jeb: It hurts.

Bruce:  It is a sad thing.  It is super sad.  Certain things can steal your music from you and that is kind of what happens.  It just steals your music and it just takes it away. 

Jeb: Thank God you found Dave. 

Bruce: Davey is an amazing character.  We’re lucky we found him.  He is something else.  Not only is he a great guitar player—good lord he is amazing.  He has the greatest personality.  He’s a funny guy. 

You’ve met Dave; he’s something else.  He is such a good singer.  He sings all the super high parts and not in falsetto either, he sings them in natural voice.  It is hard for anybody to fill Gary’s shoes but if anybody can come close then I think Davey’s done it.  People have started to accept him—it’s only been something like 23 years [laughter].  He’s great and I love working with him…I don’t know what else to say about Dave. 

Dave grew up and was in lots of bands.  He grew up in Massachusetts.  He was in a lot of bands.  He was a gun for hire for a while.  He was in Ted Nugent’s band and he played with Kim Carnes and Cher and he did some stuff with Michael Bolton. He was bouncing around doing this or that for a while. 

When we found him and decided that he was the guy, he was thankful that he could stop all of that bouncing around.  He would do a tour and then when the tour was over he had to hustle and get another gig.  It is not the same as being in a band all the time.  Dave and Bryan [Hitt, drummer] both love that they found a home. 

Jeb: I like the last two studio albums.  Building the Bridge I really like.

Bruce: I like that album too.  It is a little more organic and fun.  A lot of it was done in Kevin’s studio in his out. 

Jeb: Find Your Own Way Home was good but it just wasn’t quite right. 

Bruce: It was fun.  We were playing with some ideas.  Some of them gelled together but not all of them did.  It doesn’t always sound like REO Speedwagon, I don’t think.  “Lost on the Road of Love” was fun to work up and it was fun to record but when I listen back to it—I just listened to that record the other day.  When I listened to that song I just don’t think it sounds like REO Speedwagon.  When I listen to that record it sounds a little bit like “I Don’t Want to Know” or “Tired of Getting Nowhere.”  We gave it a shot. 

Jeb:  Do you think REO has survived because you have become a traveling family band?

Bruce:  I think that is a big part of it.  We love each other and we are all good friends.  We have separate lives and we have separate families.  We take care of that too.  I miss these guys when I don’t see them.  I am like, “Let’s go rock.  Let’s go play.”  Everyone still wants to do it. 

I, honestly, don’t know when this will ever stop.  It will probably be when we feel like we are embarrassing ourselves.  If we stay healthy and we still feel like we are doing a good job then I don’t see why we should not keep on doing it.  The years will catch up to us, physically, but that is not happening to us for a while yet.

Jeb: I am glad to see you in a good place.  You have a great wife and are a lucky man.  You’ve made some good life choices that are really paying off for you, man. 

Bruce: Kimmie is great. I had made some bad life choices and I’ve tried to correct those.  As you go through the years you gain wisdom about things.  Thanks about Kimmie, as she is my everything.  I don’t know how I got so lucky. 

Jeb: She’s a Midwest girl and I’ve got one too.

Bruce: That is part of it.  It really is. 

Jeb: Last one:  Tell me about the photo shoot for Nine Lives.

Bruce: [laughter] It was freaky, I will tell you that.  Those were real cats.  There were handlers walking around with these huge cats.  One of them got a hold of a broom…holy cow!  That was a wild time. 

I don’t know what we were thinking on that record.  The Tuna Fish record had been a little more acoustic, so we rocked it up a little bit more on Nine Lives.  We wanted a harder edge.  I look at it now and go, “What the hell were we thinking.”   I am talking more or less about what they had us doing on the photo shoot.  I am talking about the outfits they made us ware on that.  Those outfits were really goofy looking...

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