By Jason Irwin, Chronicle Rock Columnist
“What a beautiful night for a concert. What a treat to be here at SPAC in my hometown tonight,” were Rich Ortiz’s opening words to the near-full amphitheater and lawn crowd last Tuesday evening, August 19.
Mr. Ortiz, a Queensbury grad now living in Saratoga Springs, was the opening act for veteran acts Chicago and REO Speedwagon on this stop on the co-headliners’ national tour. He also opened for the two bands the following night in Boston.
I’ve known Rich for many years, and have seen him perform many times, but it’s not my bias showing when I say that he held his own — and more — up there on the big stage the other night.
Affable and all smiles, he breezed through an abbreviated, about 15-minute set of originals in his own signature “one man band” style: Guitar, looped at times for solo runs; barefoot bass keyboards; harmonica; and plenty of on-the-guitar percussion.
And, of course, his voice, sounding as genuine as ever.
My favorite of his set was “Face of a Lion,” the title track from his 2010 sophomore album. Mr. Ortiz had plenty of fans in the audience, as
screams of “Richie!” rang through the arena. I could tell that the people who had never seen him before were enjoying it too.
A couple seated next to me, from Austin, Texas, commented, “I can’t believe so much sound is coming from one guy.”
I spoke with Rich a couple of days later, and asked him about the experience, which wasn’t his first time on a big stage, either. (Coincidentally, he opened for Styx, REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent at the Glens Falls Civic Center in April of last year.)
Like God saying, ‘We got you’
“I haven’t played in front of that many people before, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel at first,” he said. “But when it was happening, I felt the opposite of nervous. I was walking out, and it almost seemed like a pat on the back, almost like God or the universe was saying ‘We got you — here’s a good show for you, buddy.”
His show the following night in Boston was equally rewarding, he said.
When I asked him if there were any “just another gig” moments, he laughed.
“Yes, actually,” he said. “When the show was over, and I was lugging my gear up the hill to my car — Just another gig.”
REO Speedwagon, ‘enjoyable’
Tuesday at SPAC, REO Speedwagon played a powerful set of hits that brought the expected sing-a-longs to ballads like their Number One single “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” When that one came on, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in attendance were listening to their prom theme, wedding song — or both.
During “Take It on the Run,” I actually saw some real lighters flickering, as opposed to cell phone screens, which was refreshing.
Lead singer Kevin Cronin still hits the high notes, and is pretty funny. Those who were there might remember his amusing anecdote about his experience hiking in the Adirondacks (the punchline will have to remain an inside joke, sorry).
There were some hokey moments, like Mr. Cronin’s cliché “Follow your dreams” speech, but for the most part, REO was pretty darn enjoyable.
‘Chicago surprised me’
Chicago was, to me, surprisingly amazing. I was skeptical going in to this one.
These multi-instrumentalists have been at it for 40 years-plus — and it shows. Most of the vocals to the “newer” hits, like 1984’s “You’re The Inspiration” were handled by bassist Jason Scheff, who joined the band when vocalist Peter Cetera left in 1985.
The band honored every era of their catalog, though, and co-founder Robert Lamm was in fine form for classics like the group’s 1972 hit
“Saturday in the Park.”
Chicago is one of those bands where it seems like everybody is the frontman.
The horn section was cool, especially saxophonist James Pankow, another founding member and a real showman.
The big finale featured a set of REO and Chicago’s biggest hits — performed by both bands, together.
Special props to the sound guy during this set. I counted 14 guys onstage, and nearly everybody was doing the lead vocal switcheroo. The supergroup played REO’s 1978 single “Roll with the Changes” and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”
And the crowd, as they say, went wild.
Overall, it was a great show, and a nice change of pace for me. It seemed like the overall volume was a little low, and I wasn’t the only one saying that, either.
I’m sure it was back up for Motley Crue when they played SPAC this last Wednesday, Aug. 26.
Still, the highlight for me was the opener, Rich Ortiz. I like seeing local musicians enjoying some success.
I’ll admit it, though: I also felt a little envious for a moment, watching Rich up there, doing his thing in front of all those people, as I thought to myself, “Wow, he really has a cool job.”
But then, as I was kicking back, watching the show and taking the notes that contributed to this article, it kicked in: So do I.
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