Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tommy Shaw interview: Part II (Styx, Yes announce summer tour)

Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw in concert at USANA Amphitheater in 2007. (Photo by Doug Fox)

Styx announced its U.S. summer tour plans this morning, releasing dates for a 22-city co-headlining tour with Yes. The one-month jaunt, dubbed the "Progressive U.S. Tour," will kick off July 4 and conclude Aug. 3.

While Styx's tour with Yes will not have a Salt Lake City date, local fans of the band can look forward to a co-headline outdoor date with another well-known band in the fall.

When I interviewed Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw on March 12, we mainly discussed the impending release of his new solo bluegrass album, "The Great Divide." The album, incidentally, debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's Bluegrass Albums chart, coming in behind "Rare Bird Alert," by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

The last portion of our interview, however, touched on Styx's tour with Yes, as well as other projects the band and Shaw have in the pipeline. Styx has probably been one of a handful of bands that have most taken advantage of the popular double- and triple-bill format — aggressively touring in packaged formats nearly every summer. Past Styx touring partners include REO Speedwagon, Def Leppard, Journey, Foreigner, Kansas, Boston and many others.

One touring package that is kind of the Holy Grail for Shaw fans would put Styx with Night Ranger and Ted Nugent. Once those lynchpins were in place, you could add on Damn Yankees (the 1990s supergroup that featured Shaw, Nugent and Jack Blades of Night Ranger) and also Shaw-Blades (the Tommy-Jack enterprise that has released two albums to date with a third in progress). What a night of music that would be — well, if you didn't have to sing and perform most of the night. As Shaw was quick to point out when I raised the possibility, such a nightly grind would certainly exact a physical toll. Still, for fans, it's a fun prospect to think about, even if it never materializes.

Also in the works, a DVD of last fall's "Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" theater tour and "Regeneration, Volume 2," a CD which features eight re-recorded songs from the Styx and Damn Yankees catalog. The CD, which will be available at tour stops this summer, includes new versions of "Renegade," "Blue Collar Man," "Too Much Time on my Hands," "Queen of Spades," "Snowblind," "Miss America" and Damn Yankees tunes "Coming of Age" and "High Enough."

Here's the concluding portion of my interview with Shaw:

DOUG FOX: I would probably be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Styx’s summer tour plans ... and I know the Yes thing is not announced yet, but in this part of the interview I’m hoping to get a few more updates and then when things become available kind of plug them in.

TOMMY SHAW: Well, we’ve been saying that we should do this for years, and it never would come through — I don’t know if schedules just wouldn’t allow or you couldn’t get everybody on board to do it. I don’t know your experience with Yes, but I just remember getting that first Yes album and putting that on and hearing that music and thinking, “Where did this come from? This is, like, music from another planet ... it’s better than anything I’ve ever heard.” It’s taken rock music to a level that I didn’t even know is possible. And Styx was influenced by Yes. If you listen to songs like “You Need Love,” you can tell they were listening to Yes. So we’re very excited about going on tour with them. 

DF: Is there a third band, too?

SHAW: There’s probably going to be an acoustic act or just someone to play, you know, to get people in the building. It’s a great opportunity for, like, an acoustic guy to come in and warm everybody up and introduce themselves.

DF: So will that mean that each of the bands, you and Yes, obviously, would get maybe a little extra time on stage as opposed to the triple bills?

SHAW: That’s exactly the plan. That’s exactly what the intent is.

DF: Can you just comment generally about co-headlining tours and how popular they’ve become in the last, what’s it been, seven or eight years?

SHAW: Yeah, we would join forces with people, and as fan bases get older, you know, some people, their life just dictates that you’re not going to as many shows as possible. It gives people a reason to go, “Wait a minute, these are two of my favorite bands, I’ve got to go see this.” And you wind up playing to their fans, and hopefully they become your fans and vice versa. It’s a great way to keep constantly infusing the genre with new fans. It’s a great idea because it’s working. We’re constantly looking out there, and I’ll say, “How many people are seeing Styx for the first time?” Routinely, it will be 20 to 50 percent of the people are first-time concert-goers to a Styx concert. That’s pretty amazing.

DF: And you’re playing with Journey and Foreigner in Europe.

SHAW: Yes.

DF: And you’ve been with both of those bands before ...

SHAW: Yes ... we all light a fire under each other, which is only that much better for the fans that are coming to see it.

DF: And I guess Night Ranger is playing with Journey and Foreigner during the summer in th U.S.

SHAW: I think that’s awesome.

DF: Now, I always thought ... and this is probably just my thought in looking at the tour schedules and what not, but Night Ranger has maybe never been involved, perhaps, with Styx as a full-time touring partner because it seems like they don’t do full tours very much but just kind of weekend dates and things like that.

SHAW: Right.

DF: Is this a change for them ...

Tommy Shaw stomping out "The Grand Illusion."
SHAW: Yeah, it’s a change. I’ve always encouraged Jack, you know, Night Ranger is such a great band, you really should do something like this. Not that I’m taking credit for it, but I’m just glad that he’s finally pursuing it like that, because they have the music, they have the hits, and they have a great band, and everybody’s still in great shape. When you go hear them, you’re singing along to every song — you’re getting your face ripped off by the guitar shredding. “Sister Christian” is in “Rock of Ages,” and it’s a pivotal song in that play. So I’m really happy to see them getting the recognition they deserve.

DF: You know, people think that Styx and Night Ranger would be the perfect touring couple.

SHAW: I don’t disagree. I’ve been saying that for years. Fortunately, they don’t listen to me because I don’t necessarily know what’s going to make up a successful tour. But I think eventually, I’m going to be proven right on that one.

DF: Because that’s the one a lot of fans are holding out for.

SHAW: For one thing, you know you’re going to get a third act out of it! (laughs)

DF: Exactly!

SHAW: Whether it’s on the bill or not.

DF: I think that’s why everybody wants it.

SHAW: Yeah, I would love to see that.

DF: Of course, I know the schedules lining up are probably the big thing that would prevent this, but people are also looking at the fourth and fifth act ... by inviting Ted [Nugent].

SHAW: They want me to die! (laughs) “Maybe he’ll keel over on stage and I want to be there!”

DF: They better get tickets for the first part of the tour!

SHAW: Oh crap! It’d be great for the first three days, and on the fourth one I’ll be on a gurney up there. (laughs) I like the concept of that, though.

DF: And then if you could just tell me what are the future plans for Shaw/Blades. I’m sure people would be interested in that.

SHAW: Well, there is a future, definitely. We just suddenly got sidetracked doing other wonderful things. But there is a record that was started already, that has some great songs on it, which I told you about. Once this [bluegrass project] has run its course for the time being, then that will be the next thing we jump on. We’ll finish that. We want to go play some shows, and offers are out there. So it’ll happen.

DF: And then the DVD of your theater tour [doing "The Grand Illusion" and "Pieces of Eight" albums in their entirety]?

SHAW: We’re in post-production with that right now.

DF: I know we’ve talked before, but you said the great thing about being where you guys are right now is there’s no set timetables or deadlines, things just kind of happen when you can do them.

SHAW: Yeah, there’s no rush to kind of put it out prematurely. So we can take our time and produce it the way we want it to be. We’re recording our old masters because the record company, there aren’t really any original people who were there during the days when we made those records — so whoever has the masters has not stepped forward. So we’re just redoing them. It’s actually better because it’s the guys who you’ve been coming to hear play it for the last generation are playing on it. So they sound very much like the original, except it’s like we put a bigger engine in it.

DF: So you really don’t know where any of these masters are?


DF: Wow.

SHAW: It’s pretty amazing isn’t it?

NOTE: If you missed the first part of the interview, you can find it HERE.

Monday, April 4, 2011

My Introduction to the Mighty Van Halen

This photo captures the raw exuberance of a young David Lee Roth. While innocence is not a word you would normally associate with Van Halen, there was a “the-world’s-at-our-fingertips” vibe at the Logan show. Everyone should have the opportunity at least once to catch a great band in the early phases of its career.
All photos by Mitch Hancock from March 31, 1979, in Logan, Utah.

I've had Van Halen -- a group I first saw in concert 32 years ago this past week -- on the brain a lot recently.

It is pretty common knowledge that the group is in the studio recording a new studio album with original frontman David Lee Roth. This is a gift not taken lightly by Van Halen fans. It's been 27 years since the band's last full studio album with Roth (1984's "MCMLXXXIV"), 13 years since the band's last full studio record with any singer (1998's "3" with Gary Cherone), and seven years since any new music of any kind (three new reunion songs with second singer Sammy Hagar in 2004).

So, clearly, I've had plenty of time in between albums -- not to mention frequent personnel changes and years of utter silence -- to question my devotion to this little old band from Pasadena. Besides just the fantastic music, I've determined that a lot of it goes back to my initial introduction to the band.

There are moments of clarity in every person’s life that are ingrained in one’s memory so completely as to almost be imprinted on the DNA.

Most people, for example, can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when world-altering events occurred.

Personally, I find that this phenomenon also happens with music. I have always tended to mark specific instances and periods of life based on certain songs and when I first heard them.

But nothing quite prepared me for that day in the summer of 1978 when my musical theory received relativity.

Living in Southern California at the time, the local hard rock radio stations of the day had been playing a trio of songs from an L.A. band that had just released its debut record. There was something about those three songs that seemed to force my hand — as if drawn by a tractor beam — toward the stereo’s volume dial, where a quick right turn would raise things to a more enjoyable level.

Eruption: A classic Eddie Van Halen guitar solo pose.

The songs in question were “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” “You Really Got Me” and “Runnin’ With the Devil.” The band was Van Halen — and life as I knew it was about to change.

I remember clearly the day my brother and I drove down to the local record store to purchase the cassette tape of this much-buzzed-about new band. Being the sensible older brother, I hedged my bets by allowing him to buy it — figuring that if I ended up not really liking the rest of it, at least I wouldn’t have risked my own hard-earned money on what was still a largely unknown entity. It turned out to be the best $5 I never spent. (Don’t worry. I would later plop down money, most willingly, for the vinyl album and remastered CD.)

 Leaving the record store, we pushed the tape in the car stereo, turned up the volume and headed for home. The short drive from Foothill Boulevard up Lowell Avenue in La Crescenta only used up one song, and we were just pulling into the garage as opening track “Runnin’ With the Devil” came to its fiery conclusion.

And that’s when the future officially arrived — and it was named “Eruption.”

The plan was to pop the tape out and continue listening inside the house, but the second song had just started and neither one of us could even remotely fathom reaching for the eject button.

To be quite honest, we weren’t exactly sure what we were hearing during that initial listen. A torrent of notes exploded out of the left speaker at a dizzying rate as we looked at each other in slack-jawed amazement and wondered aloud whether what we heard was accomplished on synthesizer or guitar.

And while I didn’t know exactly what I was hearing, I recognized that the music landscape as I knew it was changing before my very ears.

As it turned out, what we were experiencing was a 1-minute-and-42-second explosion of jam that changed guitar playing forever and signaled the arrival of a new six-string sheriff: Eddie Van Halen.

David Lee Roth in the days before spandex and seatless chaps
Later that summer, our family moved to Utah where, in a shocking surprise, the mention of Van Halen resulted in nothing more than dumbfounded stares — as the band had yet to break on Salt Lake City radio stations. However, once I started attending college in the fall, I was back in familiar territory, as Van Halen was a big favorite among those on our dorm floor, since most of my new acquaintances were students from out of state. Well, all of them that is except a longtime friend from California, Mat Yeates.

It was late in our freshman year (March 1979) that we heard a radio ad for a Van Halen concert at Utah State University in Logan — about two hours north of Provo, where we were going to school. But we were undeterred. I remember Mat and I being elected to drive up and procure the tickets — for our group of eight or so who wanted to attend. On the day before tickets were to go on sale, Mat and I drove up to Logan to camp out for the best seats. When we got there, we were first in line. Well, basically, we were the entire line — as nobody else was there. We sat there for a couple hours — no doubt talking about Mat’s love for the band Legs Diamond, some band he was always pimping as the next big thing — before somebody showed up at the ticket office, which is when they informed us that there had been a problem at the ticket printer's, and that they had been forced to postpone all ticket sales.

The tickets did eventually go on sale a few days later, and we scored some sweet seats on the seventh row on the floor. We were pumped.

Van Halen II was released on March 23 — so we had eight days to familiarize ourselves with the new material before the show. I can still picture walking into the quaint locally owned record store -- Remember those? -- near campus and hearing "Light Up the Sky" for the first time playing over the loudspeakers as the shop owner was spinning the new disc.

Michael Anthony performs his bass solo before leading into "You're No Good."
March 31 finally arrived and the weather was terrible. I recall making the couple hours drive to the show through a torrential downpour.

The support act that night was a band called the Granati Brothers. Never heard of them? Neither had we. They jumped out on stage in their poodle-boy hairdos. That’s pretty much all I remember about their set — although a couple years back I did run across a couple of news stories out of Pennsylvania (Motto: Home of the Granatis) where they reminisced about how they had remained friends with the Van Halens for years after that tour. But I digress.

A young Eddie Van Halen took guitar playing into the future.
I have never stood on the tarmac behind a 747 when it takes off, but it can’t be unlike the experience of seeing Van Halen open a concert. The sheer power of “Light Up the Sky” erupting from the amplifiers as Van Halen took the stage was an experience to behold. What a complete rush! It was a show unlike anything I had ever seen prior to that. There was the technical wizardry of Eddie Van Halen on guitar, offset by the exaggerated macho posing, high-pitched wails and animated song intros of frontman David Lee Roth. There was action all over the stage, augmented by Michael Anthony pounding on his bass and Alex Van Halen on drums (he even set the big gong behind him on fire at the end of the show). It was powerful. It was funny. It was completely over the top. And I loved every minute of it.

The best analogy I can come up with to describe the experience is to compare it to the pivotal scene in the movie "Back to the Future" where everyone is at the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance and, as a member of the band, Marty McFly starts riffing on Chuck Berry before falling down on the stage and playing a cacophony of lead guitar notes, leaving everyone in the audience with stunned looks on their faces. (Is it a coincidence that earlier in the film, when Marty plays music from the future to frighten his father into asking his mother out, that the tape is labeled "Van Halen"? I think not.) Van Halen was ahead of its time -- both musically and from a stage-show standpoint.

One recollection I wish I had, but can't pull out of the memory banks, was whether or not Eddie played his infamous "Shark" guitar that night. He was using it on select songs throughout that tour, so chances are good that he used it at our show as well. The "Shark" guitar is an Ibanez Explorer that Eddie — a noted tinkerer in search of the perfect "brown sound" tone, as has been evidenced over the years with all his developments in guitar-related products and even his own line of guitars — took a chain saw to, drastically altering its appearance and sound. The cut-out chunk gave the guitar a slight Jaws-esque appearance, which led to its moniker. Of course, I didn't begin becoming familiar with his guitar collection until several years down the road, so it would not have resonated with me that evening. Still, that particular guitar has always fascinated me — it just looks cool — and it nags at me that I might have seen it played and just not realized it at the time.

There is a bit of a mystery involving that Logan show. To this day, the Logan concert — Van Halen’s first live appearance in Utah — does not show up on any of the band’s archived tour lists. I heard a rumor several years back, supposedly emanating from a former member of the band’s road crew from back then, that due to some bet, for some reason Alex Van Halen said the band would never acknowledge that tour date. (I can’t vouch for the source, but it is strange that the date remains unlisted.)

Surf is up, Eddie: Let's see the Granati Brothers do this!
On a ridiculous note, a few years ago I read a review of that show written in the Utah State University student newspaper. The reviewer waxed poetic about how this great new band had graced the USU stage and was sure to be the next big thing in rock music. Unfortunately, he was talking about the Granati Brothers. He completely dismissed Van Halen. (Rock critics ... sigh ... what do they know?) I actually felt sorry for the sap that wrote that review. There was a future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame act on the bill that night, not to mention arguably the greatest guitarist of his generation, and the poor guy totally missed it. A complete whiff. Not to worry, I’m guessing that writer went on to a successful career forecasting futures on Wall Street.

Well, of one thing I’m certain. The show did happen. And I’ve got the ticket stub and pictures to prove it. Not to mention, 32 years reflecting on the memories of that one night.

David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen and Michael Anthony in happier times.
The photos, incidentally, were shot by a friend of mine who was taking a photography class on campus at the time. We went to the university darkroom and printed these pictures up, and I have held on to them all these years. Several of them capture the raw power and energy of a young band that would become the biggest band in America within the next five years. (Mitch Hancock, wherever you are these days — I salute you!)

Eight days after the Logan show, Van Halen played the second day of the Califfornia (yes, with two f’s) World Music Festival at the Los Angeles Coliseum, appearing with the likes of Aerosmith, UFO, Toto, Mother’s Finest, Eddie Money, Brownsville and the Boomtown Rats.

A little over six months later, Mat Yeates and I, and two other friends, were on the doorstep of Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s childhood home in Pasadena — on the day of the band’s first headline appearance at the Great Western Forum — having a chat with their father, Jan Van Halen (a delightful character). Ah, but that’s a story for another day.

That's the tale of my introduction to Van Halen ... what's yours?

Note: Included below is the setlist from the Logan show, as well as links to an article on the Granati Brothers and their history with Van Halen, details and photo of Eddie's "Shark" guitar, and a travel piece I wrote detailing the last time I've seen the mighty VH. Also, some videos that have popped up on YouTube in the last couple years taken from the tour-opening show in Fresno, Calif., on March 25, 1979 — just six days before the Logan show. This footage is the closest thing available to what I witnessed that first Saturday night in Logan.

Eddie Van Halen inspired a whole generation of guitar players with his unique tapping style.

Van Halen
Utah State University
March 31, 1979

Light Up the Sky
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Running With the Devil
Dance the Night Away
Beautiful Girls
On Fire
You’re No Good
Jamie’s Cryin’
Feel Your Love Tonight
Outta Love Again
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love
Eddie Van Halen Guitar Solo
You Really Got Me

Encore I
Bottoms Up

Encore II
Atomic Punk

Performance time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Like The Editing Room Floor on Facebook: CLICK HERE.

A great article on the Granati Brothers and their experiences on tour with Van Halen can be found here.

For a closer look at some of Eddie's iconic guitars, including the "Shark," click here.

This was a report of my first Van Halen concert. Here's a report of the last time I saw the band — Tiger Jam 2008 in Las Vegas.