(Publicity photo by Ash Newell)
Note: Styx officially announced its fall tour plans on Aug. 4. That night, I happened to see the band in concert at Tuacahn, an outdoor amphitheater in Ivins, Utah. After the show I met up with band members James Young and Tommy Shaw backstage to get their thoughts on the tour, and in subsequent days caught up with Todd Sucherman and Lawrence Gowan. – Doug Fox
That the seeds for Styx’s ambitious fall tour plans – which will see the band perform its classic albums “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” in sequence and in their entirety – were sown during a tour bus discussion among band members wouldn’t necessarily surprise anybody.
That the band members didn’t belong to Styx might.
One never knows when or where inspiration may strike, but in this case, the initial idea for what will certainly prove to be one of Styx’s most memorable tours can be traced to a chat a few years ago among members of Brian Wilson’s band.
The connection? Taylor Mills, the wife of Styx drummer Todd Sucherman, is a backup singer in Wilson’s group.
So, Mills passed along the idea – which at the time just involved playing all of “The Grand Illusion” -- to her husband, who then mentioned it to Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw.
“I just didn’t get it,” Shaw said.
At some point along the line, Styx manager Charlie Brusco enlarged the vision by adding “Pieces of Eight” to the fray as a companion piece.
“The more we thought about it, and then when Charlie said to do two albums, then it started to make sense to me,” Shaw said, “because ‘Grand Illusion,’ there’s only seven songs on it and then the reprise at the end of it. The idea of doing ‘The Grand Illusion’ and then doing ‘Pieces of Eight’ ... in theaters, they kind of expect you to take an intermission, so that’s actually a good way of doing it.”
The person who really needed convincing was guitarist James “JY” Young.
“At first, I was very skeptical of it because not a lot of groups have charmed me to want to go hear a complete album,” said Young, who initially mentioned the planned project to me after a show on Memorial Day Weekend. “But the more I’ve whispered it to people in confidence, under penalty of death, people seem excited about it. They get to hear songs they’ve never heard us play before, and they’re going to hear albums in the order they were originally sequenced. And there seems to be some incredible charm to that, and it’s starting to sink in what it is."
“The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” are natural companions in the Styx catalog, coming in 1977 and 1978 respectively, and paving the way for the band’s first widespread success. Once the thought crystallized of doing two albums in concert, said Shaw, there was never any doubt which two they would be.
“No, those were the two,” said Shaw when asked if there was ever any debate on the topic of other albums. “Of all of us, those were our favorite ones and chronologically they’re great because we got on kind of a roll in the studio. You know, on ‘Crystal Ball,’ we were still kind of finding our legs as a band, with me being the new guy. By the time we got to ‘Grand Illusion,’ we were all, like, locked in. And then we were still finding ourselves. So, when you listen to ‘Grand Illusion’ and then ‘Pieces of Eight’ after that, you do see the growth from one to the next. Even though ‘Grand Illusion’ was more successful, ‘Pieces of Eight’ is a growth. We were fearless on ‘Pieces of Eight.’ So to put those two together, you’ll really kind of experience the history of the band right there in one sitting.”
“The audiences were quite obvious with their approval of experiencing the entire record in order,” said Gowan, who joined Styx on keyboards and vocals in 1999. “I suppose that having it unfold as it did when they first embraced it revives that personal connection from the day when the shrink-wrap was removed and the vinyl met turntable.”
In addition to impeccable timing, another thing Sucherman brings to Styx is a fan’s perspective. Growing up in Chicago during Styx’s main chart run in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sucherman connected with “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” as a pre-teen.
“Absolutely I had them and listened to them,” Sucherman said of those albums. “Many of those songs I haven’t heard in years, and I was surprised how much I remembered them when I first went to review the material. I was in bands that played “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade” with my older brothers and older musicians back when I was 10 years old, so I do feel a connection with this music.”
If there’s a problem a band like Styx -- which also features bassist Ricky Phillips and the occasional appearance of co-founder Chuck Panozzo on bass -- faces in concert, it’s attempting to find a balance between the casual fans who come expecting to hear all the hits and the hard-core followers who want to see some deeper album material. That challenge is typically exacerbated during the summer concert season when three-tiered tours with other popular bands are the rule of the day.
“Promoters like the two- and three-band summer bills,” said Sucherman. “It’s great for the casuals to come out and have a few beers on a lovely summer night and hear an evening of hits. The hard cores want a whole night of ‘their’ band and aren’t interested in a four-hour event where they get 80 minutes of ‘their’ band. So this will hopefully draw out fans who have passed on us in recent years because it’s an event, and it’s just us. I would want to see this show if the course of my career went differently and I never ended up in this band. Of course, there’s a section of hard-cores you will never please, but pleasing all of the people all the time has yet to be accomplished by anyone in show business. I think now is a great time to do something like this, and it’s been a fun process starting to run through the material that has never been played.”
One of the most intriguing notions of this project is bringing to the stage songs that have never been played before live – either by the original recording lineup or the current incarnation. In talking with Young and Shaw, the two people who should best know, the consensus is that there are three songs from the two records which fall into that category: “Superstars,” “The Grand Finale” and “Lords of the Ring.” Songs that were played a few times, but not very often include “Castle Walls,” “I’m OK,” “Pieces of Eight” and the tranquil “Aku-Aku.”
At the time of these early August interviews, the band had only focused on working up the “Pieces of Eight” album – but Shaw already had a preferred section.
“I think my favorite part so far of it is where we do ‘Queen of Spades’ into ‘Pieces of Eight’ into ‘Aku-Aku,’ ” he said. “There’s just something about it. It kind of hearkens me back to my stoner days, you know, because back in that time, I was heavily into albums that had a lot of production and planning and that were kind of cinematic. And those songs were very cinematic. It’s such a pleasant kind of reminder of that time – and we bring our life story with us when we perform, so all of that goes back into what you’re hearing. Any of these Styx songs that we play, it’s the guys today playing it. It’s all their experiences and their ups and downs, and loves and losts, and all that sort of thing – but I think that’s part of what makes Styx enjoyable to see in person. So now we’re bringing all that to these songs, which some of them we haven’t played since we recorded them.”
Which makes them seem almost new again.
“I’m having to listen to what I played on the guitar and try and find that,” Shaw said. “It’s interesting to see what I was playing back then. It’s still me, so I can go back to it, but I’m enjoying reverse engineering some of those solos, and hear the sounds and that sort of thing.”
It was a different era of record-making back then, Shaw said, and one aspect of the project that the band is enjoying is essentially holding up a mirror to its history.
”There was a real artistry to creating an album, at least there was,” said Shaw. “We looked at it as something that had a beginning, a middle and an end – it was art. And there had to be two arts, because there’s Side A and Side B. And so we created the whole thing as a piece, not just a bunch of songs strung together. And even we had kind of forgotten ... it’s like trying to think of how you look. You know, everybody else knows what you look like, but you see a picture of yourself and you’re like, ‘That’s what I look like?’ And an album is kind of like a picture of that era, and so we started playing them, and we’re kind of, like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s who we are. That’s where we came from.’ ”
Speaking of pictures, the band is also looking to enhance the concert experience by having a couple of LED screens that would, according to Young, show literal as well as impressionistic content.
“There’s going to be some additional artistry back there to sort of enhance the whole thing. And there’s probably going to be some archival stuff that’s going to show up on the screen that people may have never seen – um, if we can locate it,” Young said with a laugh.
Plans for the production are still taking shape, which is a fun part of the process to be in, Shaw said.
“The great thing is, we’re still discovering exactly what it’s going to be, because we’re letting it tell us what to do,” said Shaw. “We thought about maybe having a little bit of storytelling in there. There might be that. If when we get in rehearsal [we see] that it’s better if we just play the whole thing, then that’s what we’ll do. These kind of things will tell you what’s right, so we’re looking forward to that aspect of it. We’re just very excited because it’s the most unique thing we’ve ever done.”
While the entire band is now completely onboard with the project – nobody is quite certain what to expect once the tour begins Oct. 14 in Evansville, Ind.
“ ‘Grand Illusion’ and ‘Pieces of Eight,’ when played faithfully in their entirety, will undoubtedly be received as the milestone albums they are for an audience that has never tired of the Styx experience,” said Gowan.
“This is an opportunity for us to get off on playing these works in their entirety and hopefully the audience – who knows what they are about to hear – enjoys it as much,” said Sucherman. “I think it’s going to be tremendous.”
“I’m not skeptical [now] because I’m starting to suspect that it’s a matter of we’re going to make it as good as it can be, and there seems to be enthusiasm about it. ... So I don’t see how it can’t work,” said Young. “I mean, is it going to work well enough to want to do it again? I don’t know that. We’ll find that out.”
Would the tour, which currently includes 22 dates throughout the East, ever make it to other parts of the country?
“There’s no reason why we wouldn’t expand it,” said Shaw, if the scheduled dates prove successful both on stage and in the audience. “That’s another thing, we have no idea. We might show up and it’s just us there ... and we’ll eat all the popcorn!”