Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Styxmen in the Wilderness

Photo by Ash Newell

In more than 35 years of attending concerts, I have seen Styx more than any other band.
Friday’s Styx show at the Wendover Concert Hall marked the 25th time I’ve seen the veteran rock band perform live, dating back to October of 1978, when I first saw the band on its “Pieces of Eight” tour.

A lot has changed since then, not the least of which is Styx’s lineup. In addition to core members, guitarist/vocalists James "JY" Young and Tommy Shaw, the group features drummer Todd Sucherman, keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan and bassist Ricky Phillips. This lineup is now in its eighth year together and is a perfectly oiled machine in concert.

Since Gowan replaced co-founder Dennis DeYoung in 1999, Styx has become a veritable road warrior, performing more shows in the last 12 years than in the previous 27 combined. The band also has a unique historical bond with Utah, as Provo was one of three U.S. cities where the song “Lady” first became a hit before breaking nationally in the early 1970s. Combine those two facts, and it’s easy to see why Styx passes through the Beehive State a couple times a year while crisscrossing the country.

When you’ve seen a band so often, it’s easy to find yourself anticipating certain nuances or “tells” — to borrow a poker term, this being Wendover and all — of the show that may go unrecognized or unappreciated by the more casual fan. For example, Shaw changes up guitars often during the course of the concert, and I’ve learned that you can often correctly predict which song will be next by studying which guitar he has strapped on for the upcoming number.

Another solid Styx song predictor is simply knowing what section of the show the band is in, and noting who is handling the preliminary introduction. In nearly all cases, the person who introduces a particular song is going to be singing lead vocals on it. Applying those indicators with a little band background knowledge is easy, yet can seem like quite the parlor trick when employed correctly.

Several years ago, for example, I was taking notes while covering a Styx show at the Depot in Salt Lake City. A nearby audience member had noticed my in-concert scribblings and turned to me between songs to ask why I was taking notes. When he learned I was writing the setlist in progress, he, half-jokingly, half-condescendingly, asked me what the next song would be. I saw that Gowan was going to introduce the song, knew that he’d already sung “The Grand Illusion” and “Lady,” as was typical, earlier in the set, and figured there was a good chance the band would do the lead single from its then-recent covers album, “Big Bang Theory.” Taking all that into account, I said with some surety the next song would be “I Am the Walrus.”

I wish I could adequately describe the incredulous look on this man’s face as he flat-out scoffed at me and dismissed my prediction as pure baloney. Admittedly, if someone were completely unaware of this Beatles classic being on Styx’s covers album, as this man certainly was, it would have seemed an outrageous – and perhaps mocking — guess. But should I be held up for public ridicule because there were no vowels for sale at the merch stand? He challenged, after all, and I merely answered. What more did he expect?

I felt immediately vindicated when Gowan, without naming the tune title in his intro, started in on the familiar keyboard beginning to the two tusks-inspired ramblings of the Eggman. As the first verse began, my new acquaintance turned around and shot me a smart-aleck look that seemed to say, “Gotcha, fool!” That’s when I realized he didn’t even recognize the song. I mean, come on, it’s not like they were playing a more obscure Beatles number like “Norwegian Wood.” Finally, when it got to the chorus, the man turned around and acknowledged defeat with a somewhat bewildered look on his face — an expression, I mused, with which he was probably well-acquainted.

Why am I relating this story now — other than the fact that I’ve been looking for a good place to work it into a narrative for years? It stems from knowing that a couple friends of mine were at last weekend’s show, some who had never seen the revamped Styx lineup before and a few others who had only witnessed the group a couple times. During the course of the concert, I found myself trying to evaluate the proceedings through their eyes and run the unfolding events through a somewhat different filter.

So, while I may have witnessed a thousand and 15 revolutions of Gowan’s quirky rotating keyboard setup over 21 concerts in the past 12 years, I took a moment to appreciate the initial thought that went into the instrument’s design and how the artist sometimes known as the Strange Animal utilizes it to great effect in myriad ways throughout each show. Whether he’s using it to jumpstart the concert with the opening chords of “Blue Collar Man” or using it as his footstool to belt out the third verse of “Come Sail Away” at the end of the main set, I find it’s clearly more a fun, visual attraction than an unwanted distraction.

One should also never take the talents of Styx stars Shaw and Young for granted. Each has their own unique style of playing guitar, but those talents meld in harmony as they easily switch off between lead or rhythm duties, often within the friendly confines of the same song. Shaw enjoys strutting across the stage, from his normal position at stage left to the right, while rifling off blistering solos in songs such as “Blue Collar Man,” “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Crystal Ball.” During many of his solo turns, Young prefers standing stoically at center stage, held tilted back in a pose that exudes pure freedom and spontaneity. (I once asked him to describe those burst-of-expression moments, and he said he envisioned it being like Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic — an apt description indeed.)

The rhythm section of Sucherman and Phillips is also a sight — and sound — to behold. Sucherman, who last year was voted the No. 1 skinsmith by Modern Rock Drummer magazine, is a blast to watch in concert. Like many drummers, he must be viewed live to be totally appreciated. Phillips, a former member of well-known 80s bands The Babys and Bad English, has been holding down bass duties in Styx since late 2003 and has created his own niche in the live show while playing off the antics and complementing the skills of everyone else.

Last fall, Styx embarked on a limited-run theater tour through the East that featured “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” albums played in sequence and in their entirety. The Wendover show included a four-song suite in the middle of the set with songs straight from the fall jaunt, ones that hadn’t been in Styx sets for many years. I found this section — which included the epic “Man in the Wilderness,” “I’m OK,” “Sing for the Day” and the killer “Queen of Spades” — a clear highlight on the night. Shaw told me after the show that Styx is rotating these songs nightly, shuffling them with other tunes from the fall tour that are otherwise not standard setlist selections.

Shaw also said the fall tour was so successful that the band is hoping to revisit the double-album theater presentation next year, possibly for a full U.S. tour. (For an inside look at the background of and planning for the fall tour, click here.)

In addition to his busy Styx schedule, Shaw also has a couple solo projects in the pipeline, including the scheduled March 22 release of a bluegrass album, titled “The Great Divide.” Also on the horizon, possibly next year, is an additional Shaw/Blades covers album, a followup to the successful 2007 collaboration, “Influence,” featuring Shaw and his former Damn Yankees compatriot Jack Blades, of Night Ranger.

Shaw shared a few more song choices that he and Blades had settled on, and I will just say there are some very exciting prospects in the works.

Peppermill Concert Hall
Jan. 14, 2011

Blue Collar Man
The Grand Illusion
Too Much Time on My Hands
Man in the Wilderness
I’m OK
Sing for the Day
Queen of Spades
Crystal Ball
Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
Miss America
Come Sail Away

I Am the Walrus

Performance time: 1 hour, 35 minutes


  1. Very cool to know the Utah connection! Only you could predict the next song by the guitar Doug! Nice Beatles tie in and I love your story about the fellow concert goer who doubted your ability to predict.

  2. As usual you did not disappoint... Great blog, as I was reading it, it was almost like I was there. Oh wait, I WAS THERE!! And rocking!! Great show, great band and great blog!! Rock on!!

  3. Very much agreed! After 106 shows, I know the "tells," but every night is fresh and different, and they give 100% to their fans every night as well. It's a joy to see musicians taking so much joy in performing.

  4. Written objectively but as a true fan. What a great combination for a blog or article. It was my 24th time seeing them in concert and I have noticed many of the same things you have. We were on the front row and I found myself watching the band make eye contact with each other and then with different members of the audience. It was a very exciting position to be in. Tommy walked over to us on Come Sail Away and asked my wife if she wanted to play his guitar. That was a once in a life opportunity and it was the second time it has happened. I now find myself reading about their tour and other peoples experiences all while knowing they'll be in Utah sometime this year and I'll have another opportunity to see them again. I enjoyed your blog!!!

  5. Hey where is the live dvd of the pieces of 8 live and the grand illusion that was supposed to come out last Christmas?(2010)

  6. It's great to see those four songs from Pieces of Eight are in rotation. I LOVE this band, but honestly, I can't see as many shows as you've seen because they never switch up the set list. I'd be thrilled to see them cut Lady, Come Sail Away, Miss America, etc. from their set and introduce some new material or deeper album cuts like Never Say Never, Lights, Put Me On (and not in the terrible medley form).

  7. I'd like to see them in Wisconsin's been awhile

  8. Corr27: When I interviewed him last month, Tommy said the live dvd of last fall's theater tour was in "post-production." There's no set release date yet, but I think they'll release when they think it's ready. There is a hope to return to that tour format on fuller scale tour, perhaps, next year.

    Hope that helps!