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REO Speedwagon bandmates put stars in eyes of garden crowd

As the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, the stars weren't exactly twinkling in the sky. Fortunately, they showed up on the stage Wednesday night at Star 102.5's Starry Night in the Garden.

As fans prepared for concert headliners Kevin Cronin and Dave Amato of REO Speedwagon, they hardly sat still in their seats. Singles, couples and families milled across the lawn of the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, making their way from tent to tent, tasting the city's finest cuisine and wine. In exchange for their ticket stubs, each audience member received a complimentary Star 102.5 wineglass and plate.

Before Cronin and Amato even made it to the stage, the concert was a success -- and not because of the beverages. Opener Jon McLaughlin, who flew in after a daytime performance in New York City, was an absolutely refreshing artist. As he surveyed the crowd, the singer admitted it was his first time in Buffalo, and though he had been in a rush to get here, he found it quite enjoyable -- and scenic.

"I hope you don't take offense, but I don't think a lot of the rest of country knows what you've got going on here," he told an applauding crowd.

Although McLaughlin's style is hard to classify, it can be said that his powerful, smooth vocals evoke memories of an early Bryan Adams, and his enthusiastic, funky piano playing triggers thoughts of Ben Folds.

Treating the crowd to impressive tracks like "Beautiful Disaster," "Human" and "Perfect" (dedicated to the couples in the audience), McLaughlin's rare talent and charismatic personality will no doubt make him a household name soon enough.

By the time Cronin and Amato finally appeared, the crowd was relaxed and ready, wineglasses in hand.

They weren't alone.

As Cronin walked the stage with a raised wineglass, both musicians smiled as if it were their birthday, and their genuine excitement to be onstage only made the crowd clap louder. As the opening notes of "Music Man" filled the gardens, the crowd applauded their approval. Yet it wasn't until the duo started strumming the second song, "Take it on the Run," that they really got involved. Young and old alike sang along to every word, and Cronin eagerly welcomed this off-key, slightly drunken chorus.

It wasn't until the end of the song that things really got interesting. After finishing the crowd favorite, Cronin made a rare, and for many superfans, thrilling, announcement.

"We kinda sorta planned those two songs, but that's as far as we got," he explained to the sea of faces in front of him. "So we're gonna need you guys to start yelling out some songs."

Of course, the next minute or so was a loud mess of song titles being screamed, and Cronin and Amato, sticking to their word, played the crowd's request by launching into a nonsense tune with the dominant lyrics "Rah-blah-blah-blah." This humorous, fun exchange was apparent through much of the night, and it only added to an already smooth-sounding show.

More hits like "Keep Pushin' " and "Can't Fight This Feeling" were played, but they wouldn't have sounded half as good if Cronin and Amato hadn't brought their genuine energy and enjoyment to the stage.

Food, wine, and an unscripted set list with two memorable '80s artists.

Although the audience might not have had natural skylights illuminating the path to their cars like the concert title suggested, it was more than clear from the night's activities that the stars really were on their side.

e-mail: mhirschbeck@buffnews.com

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>Concert Review

REO Speedwagon's Kevin Cronin and Dave Amato

Wednesday night as part of Starry Night in the Garden at Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens.

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