Concert Review: Styx (September 3, 2011)

I’m shaking my head slowly, with a wry smile. Why? Because I just returned from a few hours of time travel, courtesy of Styx.

I missed the opportunity to see the band on their recent tandem-tour with Yes. The two bands alternated spots on the bill throughout that string of dates, and on the night I attended the show (in a suburb of Atlanta), Yes went first. I had a backstage pass to meet Chris Squire and his bandmates, and subsequently spent nearly all of Styx’s set backstage. When I finally came back out, I only caught part of one song. But I immediately thought, “Hey, they don’t actually suck at all. And I don’t see or hear that annoying guy, either.”

I should explain. Way back in 1983 I was (I guess) trying to get on the good side of a particular girl, so I agreed to accompany her to a concert featuring her Very Favorite Band. I owned the vinyl LPs Equinox (the 1975 release featuring “Lorelei,” my favorite Styx song) and 1977’s The Grand Illusion. I didn’t particularly care for the albums that followed; plus, in those days, if you wanted to hear that music all you had to do was turn on the radio. It was always playing, in between Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller Band, Boston, Aerosmith and REO fuckin’ Speedwagon. (Of those, I was only interested in Boston.)

Anyway. I was mildly annoyed when Styx released 1981’s Paradise Theater with laser etching on the vinyl: hey, they stole the idea from Split Enz’s True Colours. And the latter was worth listening to, besides! But nothing prepared me for Kilroy Was Here. Man, that was one sucky record. Featuring a robot on the cover (and as a central character in this – oh dear –concept album), Kilroy was the very exemplar of bloated, lame corporate rock circa the early 80s. That this character recalled the chrome phallus “Twiki” from the unintentionally campy (and equally lame) TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century made it even more laughable. And that song…”Mr. Roboto” was so awful, it still seemed horrible when compared to Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack, by far the most dreadful thing those guys ever did.

Any of those lovely cultural touchstones could serve as Exhibit A in the “80s music totally sucked” argument. And while I would strongly disagree with that point of view, there’s no getting around the execrable nature of some of the early 80s pomp-rock. And Kilroy Was Here is damn near the best (worst) example.

Anyway, I found myself at the concert. Since it was held in Atlanta’s Omni (“Don’t look for it; it’s not there any more” – Marty DiBergi), a venue known for sports rather than acoustics, one couldn’t expect much in the way of sonic clarity. And honestly, all I really remember about the show was the hubristic nature of the film they showed us before the music started. Projected onto large screens (that was, I’ll admit, pretty cutting-edge for the era), this film depicted Our Heroes (the band, natch) battling evildoers of some sort. Lots of running around and shouting, and lots of bad acting and writing. I sat there, cringing yet transfixed at the oh-so-very-wrongness of it all.

Then the music started. It was okay, I guess, but the gloppy/soppy ballads — courtesy of Dennis DeYoung – did not impress me. DDY was too earnest by half; his over-emotive demeanor may have been welcome before a crowd of Barry Manilow concertgoers, but in the context of a rock show, it was some lame stuff.

Any-anyway, that ’83 Styx show has gone down in my personal history as the Worst Concert I Ever Attended. Silly, stupid, easily mocked. It wrapped up in one gruesome package — even then – all of the worst excesses of arena-rock. Ever since, whenever I’ve seen a bad show, Styx ’83 is the baseline to which I compare it. And in general, the more recent show comes out looking better.

That was the baggage I brought to a Styx concert in early September 2011. One might well ask: why would I even go? Fair question. Well, I had to admit that the brief bit I saw of them a couple months earlier suggested a lameness-free show, and I was encouraged by two bits of pre-show information. One, Dennis DeYoung isn’t in the band any more. Two, they don’t play “Mr. Roboto” or “Babe” any more. Hey, I thought, this could actually be pretty good.

Indeed it was. Onstage before a near-sellout crowd on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville NC (you couldn’t ask for a lovelier outdoor venue), the 2011 version of Styx took the audience back in time for an hour and a half or so.

Ah, yes: back in time to a legendary era when men with guitars roamed and ruled the Earth. Heroic men striking heroic poses, holding their mighty axes high, fighting the evils of non-rock. That was the Styx of 2011, conjuring the Styx of, say, 1977-79. I have to admit that I have never seen as many Rock Poses™ on one stage as I witnessed that night. Lead guitarist Tommy Shaw – who turned 58 on 9/11/11, though from five yards away he looks twenty years younger — remains a rock action figure for the 21st century. Grimacing, smiling, waving his guitar above his head, slinging it between his knees…count on him for all of the guitar hero poses you recall from the 70s.

But here’s the thing: he comes by it honestly. It’s one thing to act like a hotshot guitarist; it’s quite another to actually be able to pull it off. Shaw does. Throughout the mostly-hits song list, the arrangements were structured so that Shaw often got more than one solo per song. And while in print that might sound excessive, onstage it wasn’t. Relatively brief solos, delivered in varying styles, meant that the songs always moved forward. Styx managed the tricky feat of serving up loads of guitar solos without ever moving into guitar-wankery territory.

Guitarist James Young — an original member (Shaw joined Styx in 1976) – cut a more understated presence onstage, but his playing was equally on fire. Both seemed to be having a grand time. As I have since learned, neither Shaw nor Young much cared for the direction Dennis DeYoung had taken Styx, so with the latter long gone, Styx was back to bringing the rock.

Still, while a genuinely exciting onstage attraction, the ambition of Styx’s studio work has historically outpaced the group’s abilities. Yes, they all play quite well (individually and collectively, this is one tight band), but many of their songs –especially the hits — hew pretty closely to a formula. That formula is quite simple in concept: start slowly, quietly, with an emphasis on piano or organ plus a single vocal. Build the intensity and volume, and then have the guitars explode into the mix for the Big Finish. What might seem fresh the first few times becomes a bit rote on the twelfth time it’s done. And while most of the lyrics aim for lofty heights, “set an open course for a virgin sea” is, well, not poetry.

But that’s really just critical carping. The aforementioned guitar heroics and the mock-epic songs: those are what people paid (a lot) to see. And within that context, Styx returned high value for the money. And the crowd ate it up. It was a bit strange for me, as a veteran concertgoer, to be surrounded by thousands of people most of whom (I can only assume) attend maybe one concert a year. Even in the concert’s middle section, when they slowed things waaay down and did some deep album cuts I didn’t recognize, I could turn around and see most of the crowd mouthing the lyrics along with Tommy Shaw (or, more often on the ballads, keyboard player Lawrence Gowan; he ably handles the DeYoung vocal parts, but delivers them without the Broadway ‘tude). The guy next to me was literally shaking with excitement during some songs. I almost wanted to put a friendly arm around his shoulders and tell him, “Calm down, dude. It’s only Styx.”

The set list was pretty well balanced between hits (for the punters) and lesser-known tracks (for the hardcore fans like my shaking buddy). The energy did flag during those keyboard-heavy album cuts, but those gave people a chance to drop another $10 on eight ounces of wine. Toward the end of the show, a nattily dressed older gentleman with a bass guitar joined the band for a few numbers; he was identified as Chuck Panozzo, the band’s original bassist. That was nice.

Honestly, in 2011 it’s a rare event – not to mention a good deal of fun – to see a rock band put on The Show. Not, thank goodness, to get up there and act out the songs, but simply to crank ‘em out, to sing ‘em like they mean ‘em, and to smile and connect with the crowd in as genuine a way as is possible. The show ended with a big display of fireworks, but since the crowd had just enjoyed an evening’s worth of high-energy musical time travel, the fireworks paled — just a little – in comparison. Had I stuck to my preconceived notions about Styx – notions from nearly thirty years ago – the loss would have been mine. This was a great show.

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