STYX "The Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight" Tour
Star Plaza Theatre - Merrillville, Indiana
October 15 , 2010
Concert review by
Scott "Dr. Music" Itter
It means so many things to so many different people. If you ask a scholar, they might tell you about some lake or river or something, but I can tell you exactly what Styx is Styx is a pure rock and roll band.
For me, just the sound of the name defines my life as a young boy. I spent so many of my early years with my ear stitched to the fabric of my speakers, with Styx music pouring into my head for hours on end. It was 1977 when the band went from local fave to international sensation with their breakthrough album, The Grand Illusion. And, after about a year with that album, the band gave me another gift in the form of the Pieces Of Eight record. This was another album I spent countless hours with; learning every lyric, singing every note, every vocal inflection. Styx was the soundtrack of my youthful existence. It's now some 33 years after the release of The Grand Illusion and the band is on the road performing both The Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight, in their entirety. And let me tell you, once the band started to play, it felt so much like 1977 I almost checked to see if I had my Star Wars Underoos on.
The band has really outdone itself this time out. Aside from the historic set list, the band brings a state-of-the-art stage set to life. I was able to explore the inner workings of this Oz-like set with the Wizard himself, production manager Keith Marks. Every facet of this stage production is astounding. From the speakerless digital sound system, to the enormous high resolution LED screen, to the cool and comfortable crew that control everything including effects pedals for the band. And, with the magic of wireless audio technology, each member has a custom fit earpiece that serves as their return monitor. That's right, no effects pedals, and no giant black boxes littering the stage. The band is free to canvas the entire stage without being hindered by wires, pedals, monitors or anything else.
All of this powerful equipment and technology has the potential of creating a mind-blowing concert experience, but only if the crew hits their cues and the band is capable of driving home a stellar musical performance. With the Styx crew, and six of the most talented musicians in the world, this audience was treated to a night of sheer perfection.
As the screen started its Star Wars-style scrolling, and gave the current state of affairs (for 1977, of course), we saw film of a young boy sifting through his record collection looking for something to put on. He moves past the first Boston record, then REO, Journey, and finally settles on The Grand Illusion record. As we watch the vinyl slab spinning at 33RPM, the needle is dropped, and off we go.
The band launches into the opening chords of "The Grand Illusion," and the stage erupts with light and sound. Bassist Ricky Phillips, and guitarists Tommy Shaw and James "JY" Young are set into motion. They started to shuffle from one side of the stage to the other, playfully interacting with each other along the way. It was high energy with razor sharp musical precision. Keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan's voice was booming as he welcomed us to The Grand Illusion. With former vocalist/ keyboardist Dennis DeYoung absent from the current lineup, I asked Gowan about the pressures of filling such iconic shoes. He insured me that the audience would get a true Lawrence Gowan, not someone trying to be Dennis DeYoung. As he says, "We are both keyboard players, and we both sing in the same vocal range, but the similarities end there." He rifled off names of former members of Styx, like John Curulewski and Glen Burtnik, and emphasized their importance to the Styx legacy. Each of those guys brought something to what is now known as Styx, and Gowan is comfortable with being the current piece of the legendary puzzle. With that said, there is an eerie similarity in vocal style between Dennis DeYoung and Gowan. He puts the DeYoung material over as if it were his own. Gowan's concerns were more with the classic harmonies that Styx is known for. He always wants to make sure that he is fitting into that vocal mix perfectly, in order to recreate the classic harmony sound. Well, I can tell you that on this night, every harmony was a picture of perfection.
As the band moved on to one of their biggest hits, "Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)," it was time to see how well Tommy Shaw has been keeping his vocal instrument. My good sweet Lord. You would think he keeps his voice in a velvet-lined box under his bed at night with the way he sounded. This is a guy that has lost absolutely nothing in the vocal department. He sounded exactly like the record; every high note, every low note, no back door gimmicks to avoid any of the tough stuff. Tommy Shaw came to play, and play he did. He became most impressive when the set reached the Grand Illusion tune "Man In The Wilderness." It was a perfect rendition of one of my favorite songs by the band.
Shaw introduced "Superstars" as one of the songs that they've never performed prior to this current tour. It was exciting to witness this first by the band, and like the rest of the set, it was executed with precision and excellence. When the first side of The Grand Illusion comes to a close, we see the vinyl spinning on the turntable once again as Shaw asks the crowd, "What should we do now?" After some crowd response he says, "That's right, flip it over!" The band then proceeded to perform one of the best album sides in classic rock history. It started with a supercharged version of "Miss America," went through Shaw's spotless rendition of "Man In The Wilderness," and came to a head with the haunting sound of what could possibly be the best song in the Styx catalog, "Castle Walls." When I spoke to Lawrence Gowan before the show, he mentioned this track as one that has Dennis DeYoung's indelible stamp all over it, but he was accepting of the challenge and was excited to be performing it. And, in true Gowan form, he nailed it.
After the 20 minute intermission in between albums, the band returned to play the Pieces Of Eight album all the way through. So back we went to the kid's room so we could watch him throw on the next Styx masterpiece. It was great to hear songs like the opening track, "The Great White Hope," "I'm O.K."and" Queen Of Spades" from this album. So much of this material gets hidden behind the success of "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)." This is an album packed full of great material, and the band showcased it all with rock and roll elegance. I did find it funny that Lawrence Gowan told me that his favorite song to perform is "Renegade." As he states, "I'm hardly even in that song, but it comes at a time in the set when the crowd is all whipped up, and you can't help but get into it." It's great to know that the band enjoys playing as much as I enjoy listening to them.
The Styx rhythm section of Todd Sucherman and Ricky Phillips were nothing short of spectacular as well. Modern Drummer magazine voted Sucherman Best Rock Drummer in the World in 2009, and it's no surprise after seeing him work. He captured all of the small nuances, as well as maintaining the overall feel of original Styx drummer John Panozzo's style. Sucherman, along with ex-Babys bassist Ricky Phillips keeping perfect pace, recreated the backbone that made this era of Styx stand tall.
As the band finished off the album with the strange and delicate "Aku-Aku," I felt a certain melancholy in the air. Did we all have to leave 1978 now? Can't we put the album on again, or perhaps another Styx record? None of us in that theatre wanted to leave the wonderful world of yesterday that the band had created. They closed the show with encores of The Beatles classic, "I Am The Walrus," and the always entertaining "Too Much Time On My Hands," from another Styx masterpiece, Paradise Theater. I'd say it was the perfect ending, but that really is an oxymoron, isn't it? To say this show ended is kind of a sad thing. But as I made my way home after the show, I slipped into my Star Wars pajamas (they're kinda tight these days), and I closed my eyes tightly and wished that the magic of Styx might someday return again to take me on a midnight ride.
One of the best things about this show was seeing Chuck Panozzo come out to play bass. Being HIV positive, he can't endure the full setlist, but he comes out to play on about half the songs in the set, and he is travelling with the band to the major locations on this tour. I felt that it was a real privilege to have him there, and he sounded excellent.
Also, the decision by the band to use vintage guitars for this show was also something that added a tremendous amount of flair to the show.
For more Styx info, visit the Official Website: www.styxworld.com
Lisa Brickler - Without you, the bestest Styx Chyk I know, this would've never happened. Thank you just seems so minimal. YOU ROCK!
Lawrence Gowan - Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. It was an honor to be in your presence.
Keith Marks and his road crew- Thanks for your graciousness and hospitality. It was fun to watch you guys make it happen.
Charlie Brusco - No words can express how thankful I am for all that you've done. I am especially appreciative of your time and amazing professionalism. There's a reason why guys like you last in this business - it's because you're the best.