Saturday, January 26, 2013

Styx: Welcome to "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" show

As an audience member, it was an uncomfortable moment.

The arena lights were out and the opening introductory film, providing important contextual background to Styx's impending special concert production, suddenly ground to a halt, with the gigantic video board blinking immediately to black.

At first, the delay served as a humorous reminder that no amount of preparation for a live performance can prevent technical stuff, inevitably, from happening at the most inconvenient time. But as the shutdown stretched toward the four-minute mark, those well-versed in Styx history undoubtedly had one of the band's most infamous moments cross their minds.

But this was not Chicago, circa 1981, and this was not the opening reel to the elaborate "Kilroy Was Here" tour -- the incident where everyone in attendance was sent home grumbling without a show when the projection failed. Instead, this was Las Vegas, 2012, the first of two "Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" concerts at the Pearl Theatre at the Palms Resort. And nobody would be leaving without a rock show -- video accompaniment or not.

Sure enough, after about a five-minute delay, the intro film started again, jumping ahead to the depiction of a teenage boy, alone in his room in 1977, scanning through a stack of albums and pulling out "The Grand Illusion." (How many of us discovered Styx, and many other bands, in this same exact way?) He removed the record and carefully placed it on a turntable, dropping the needle on Track 1, as Styx began the actual concert by launching into the title track.

I watched the band with intent curiosity that first song, looking for any telltale sign of stress, frustration or exasperation following the technical delay -- and certainly, any such reaction would be understandable to some degree. But there was absolutely none. Not a single trace. In fact, the band looked as confident and composed starting a show as any of the previous 29 times I'd seen them.

One of those previous times, incidentally, was the night before, when the band held a full rehearsal for the two special-format shows, which had not been performed live together since their original limited Eastern run in the fall of 2010. In rehearsal, the band was all business during "The Grand Illusion" portion of the run-through. There was a 10-minute-or-so interruption for a live TV interview segment (video clip from rehearsal above and below). Then the band was back to work on "Pieces of Eight" -- where everyone seemed to loosen up as the songs rolled along. Keyboardist Lawrence Gowan strolled the stage, and out into the empty arena, during one song, playfully grabbing his crotch while doing an exaggerated impression of a rapper. At another point, most of the band broke out impressions of "The Sloppy Swish" -- a "Saturday Night Live" skit maneuver, which cannot adequately be described, but should be Googled. Tellingly, the music was still played flawlessly despite the addition of the awkward "Sloppy Swish" choreography.

While "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" double-album production was not performed West of the Mississippi until those two November Vegas shows, the project itself has had a huge impact in Styx's live performances ever since -- in that several of the deeper album cuts from those two records have elbowed their way into the band's nightly sets on a rotating basis. These songs have provided a welcome nod to the hardcore fans, sprinkled in as they are with the band's obligatory greatest hits, and given shows some spontaneous variety.

Another tangible fan benefit of the project was a fantastic DVD (as well as a double audio CD), recorded live on Nov. 9, 2010, at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis. The DVD not only excellently captures the production -- complete with special video content exclusive to the double-album show -- but it also captures the band in peak form, honed by years of constant touring. Not coincidentally, the DVD will make its broadcast premiere tonight on Palladia, followed by a Feb. 1 showing on VH1 Classic. Fans should check local listings for air times for both programs.

"This is the most magnificent piece of video we've done," said James "JY" Young in a press release marking the broadcast premiere of the DVD. "Our two biggest-selling albums performed live in their entirety, all captured in state-of-the-art high definition is something we're extremely proud of. The collective skill set of the people involved in this project rivals NASA in its heydey."

One of my favorite deep album cuts has always been "Man in the Wilderness," a song that was resurrected by this project and, thankfully, has become a staple of the live set ever since. Watching the DVD for the first time, I was struck by guitarist Tommy Shaw's introduction to the inspiring song -- which only piqued my interest in learning even more about it. A short time after that, I had occasion to discuss "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" tour and DVD with Shaw, and he also graciously provided even more insight into not only the genesis of "Man in the Wilderness" but the emotional investment it takes to be able to pull it off live on a nightly basis.

This informal email interview took place in February of 2012 -- but I've been sitting on it in hopes of tying it in with a potential Western leg of "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" tour. At this point, I'm not sure if or when that may ever occur -- and the band has mentioned the possibility of pulling the production out randomly for special occasions, such as the two Vegas shows in November. As Shaw mentions at the end of this interview, the idea is out there in the ether ...

That being the case, it seems somewhat appropriate to release this brief interview in conjunction with the broadcast premieres of the DVD.


DOUG FOX: Way back when we first talked about this, before the tour, you mentioned that you were skeptical of the idea when it was first presented. Looking back at that time, to when you actually performed the tour and recorded the DVD, how did your feelings change and/or what caused your feelings to change?

TOMMY SHAW: I'm not sure my feelings have changed. Live video shoots always take away from the actual performance. You get in a groove and it's all purely about the show, then you bring in the video crew and it throws the whole thing off kilter -- there's no getting around it. That's me as the band member talking. But I realized very early on that this was something that deserved being preserved for posterity, so it was me who pushed for it early on. JY, as producer, was saddled with the most time-consuming part of seeing the whole thing through, so all credit for how well it came out goes to him and the amazing group he assembled to bring it home.

DF: Obviously, with the band's vast experience of live performing, you probably go into any project with a certain level of expectation of how it's going to go over. Was there an aspect to this show -- whether it be a certain song, a group of songs, a production value or anything else -- that really surprised you in how it was received night after night?

SHAW: It was a complete unknown until the first time we performed it on stage before a live audience. You've seen our shows -- there is an arc, you know, how we like it to flow. Because we were playing the songs in the order they appeared on the original albums, that was off the table. We would be playing songs many fans might never have heard before unless they listened to the entire albums. What we did know in our hearts was that those albums were rock solid from beginning to end and had such a good flow, it could be enjoyed on the first listening. And that's what happened when we performed it live, thank goodness.

DF: On the DVD, I was intrigued by your introduction to "Man in the Wilderness" and how it was sparked after you opened for Kansas one night in Detroit, and then you turned around and wrote it the next day. I'm wondering if you can go into a little more detail on that. First, I've always loved that song, and know that it has been a fan favorite all these years, but it has a certain imagery to it that has always been intriguing. What was it specifically about what you experienced at the Kansas show and its merging with your own experiences that led to "Man in the Wilderness." And, did you really write it all the next day -- did it come that quickly and completely?

SHAW: I kneeled behind the back seat of the auditorium to experience Kansas for the first time. Epic! Unlike any presentation of rock music I'd ever experienced. To go that big opened up all kinds of ideas in my mind, and the next time I was alone with my acoustic, the song more or less unfolded itself. The lyrics were there in rough form right away. Think about it -- to go from playing in a bowling alley lounge to the kinds of venues we were beginning to play on a regular basis, and being away from home all the time, it was strange at first to be standing out there getting that kind of response from so many people who didn't really know me or how I was feeling at the time, etc. My brother was a tank commander in Quang Tri during the war in Vietnam. It was a very difficult job and took its toll on his spirit for a long time. He's a lot like me, and I could never imagine what it must have been like or how I would have handled it. Then to have it all be such a senseless chess game played by old men in Washington, D.C. -- it was worthy of a mention in the song.

DF: In regards to "The Grand Illusion" -- did you already have the album's theme in mind or a grouping of songs that fit the theme? In other words, regarding "Man in the Wilderness," did you already have "The Grand Illusion" theme in mind when you wrote it?

SHAW: Dennis [DeYoung] had the verses and choruses to the song early on and played it for us. It spoke to all of us and what we were experiencing as members of the same band, as our popularity grew and we started to make some money. We were a very tight group musically at that time, and it was all for one and one for all -- this wonderful moment in the life of any band. So we all began to pour our hearts into it like one big "AMEN!" Although there are credits for who wrote what, it was more the credit for who wrote the essence of the songs because everyone contributed unabashedly to each other's songs. The same can be said for the "Pieces of Eight" album. That's what sets those two apart from albums that came later. Again, the prime season of innocence in the life of a band.

DF: Of the songs the band had never played before live prior to this tour -- or rarely played, for that matter -- which one is your favorite?

SHAW: My favorite song to sing is "Man in the Wilderness." The only way to do that song is all in. There's no easy version of it that I can imagine. So when I'm done, I have to come back from that wonderful place it takes me. Every time. It's hard to explain, but for example, I have to really concentrate to play whatever the next song is because I often don't feel like I've completely come back. I feel a little bad for that because I have gunked up that next song on more than one occasion as I come back to the present moment. To me, there's no better live experience than getting lost in a song. Then there's the song "Pieces of Eight." [It] never got much attention or airplay but it is such an iconic Styx song content wise. Beautiful melody and lyrics, then treated with TLC as we put it together. We spent a lot of time arranging that song, especially the middle section, and when it resolves to the three-part- harmony at the end, I want to salute. It always holds its own.

DF: Oh -- and for all of us out here in the West, what are the chances this tour will be revisited again, and brought to the West?

SHAW: JY and I were just discussing this subject, and our manager brought it up a couple of days later. No plans for now, but the idea is out there in the ether ...

Note: I originally talked to Tommy, JY, Lawrence and Todd prior to the start of "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" tour. That story can be read HERE.

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