If Styx was just going through the motions Thursday night at the Covelli Center, other bands might consider copping the band’s moves.
The multi-platinum rockers (who issued their eponymous debut forty years ago) rolled through Youngstown with an exuberance belying their years, thrilling diehard fans with a hundred-minute set that was—minus a couple cuts off 1981’s Paradise Theater—strictly Seventies.
Styx has weathered several lineup changes over the decades—the most obvious being the departure of the theatrical Dennis DeYoung— but remains anchored by the guitars and voices of co-founder James Young and longtime gunslinger Tommy Shaw. A solo superstar in his native Canada, Lawrence Gowan has fulfilled keyboard and vocal duties since 1999. Drummer Todd Sucherman’s been pounding his Pearls and splashing his Sabians since the Nineties, while veteran session man (and Bad English member) Ricky Phillips has pinned the low end since 2005.
Sure, a fair portion of the October 17th double-bill with Kansas seemed rehearsed, given the lavish stage production, and choreography that had the Styx guitarists meeting up mid-stage for some synchronized noodling. But there was no faking the virtuosity or athleticism on display. These dudes are in their 50s and 60s but still sprint around the stage (and across catwalks) like teenagers. Gowan in particular seemed to approach the show as an opportunity to exercise as much as entertain; the keyboard whiz manned a swiveling synth that afforded a 360-degree range of motion. He played complicated parts backwards, upside-down, and with only one leg on the planted on the riser—a flashy visual contrast to your average stand-in-place ivory tickler.
Shaw handled lead vocals and guitar on opener “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights) from 1978’s Pieces of Eight, then deferred to Gowan on the title track from 1977’s The Grand Illusion. Then it was back to Shaw for “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” whereon Phillips played a monster double-neck guitar while original Styx man / guest star Panozzo fielded bass. Gowan’s rendering of Styx II hit “Lady” was sublime, benefiting from the group’s trademark vocal harmonies and Sucherman’s bravado percussion.
Young greeted the Covelli contingency with memories of old days, then called on fans to hold up their cell phones (in lieu of flicking their Bics) during the illuminating Equinox back track “Light Up.” “Man in the Wilderness” and “Miss America” brought the band back to Pieces of Eight, with Young singing lead on the menacing latter number. “I’m Okay” was an affirming ode to everyone’s self-esteem.
Brandishing a Taylor acoustic guitar, Shaw recalled playing coffee houses in the early ‘70s before receiving the call to join his Styx brethren in Chicago. “Crystal Ball” was just one of many original compositions he brought with him, and the show-me-the-future tune sounded just as fresh as ever at the Covelli Center some thirty-five years on. Swapping the Taylor for a Les Paul, Shaw spearheaded the synth and guitar-driven groove of “Too Much Time on My Hands,” doubling and harmonizing with Young’s leads—but fans already knew their clapping cues.
Gowan gave his mates a well-deserved break late in the set, dazzling with solo piano snippets of tunes by Elton John (“Tiny Dancer”) and The Doors (“Light My Fire”), then led a call-and-response sing-along featuring refrains from “Black Dog” (Led Zeppelin), “Fat Bottomed Girls (Queen), and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” (Pink Floyd)—which made for a nice segue into Styx’s own audience participation anthem, “Come Sail Away.” By the time all was said and done, “Captain Gowan” stood perched atop his keyboard like a pirate in a crow’s nest, and Phillips was serenaded with a belated birthday cake.
The band (including Panozzo) encored with “Rockin’ the Paradise” and Pieces of Eight barnstormer “Renegade,” whose finale saw the arena blasted with celebratory confetti.
During our interview with Phillips last month (http://www.examiner.com/article/styx-teams-with-kansas-for-youngstown-ro...) the bassist opined that Styx and a lot of other “classic” rock bands are playing better than ever. In these days of the easy-access digital download, touring is where the real money’s at. Accordingly, these vets spend a lot of time on the road, hitting all the big markets before doubling back to smaller cities (like Youngstown), relying on equal parts passion and muscle memory. Thursday’s performance proved Phillips correct; Styx’s act was extremely tight—and each song packed twice the energy of its recorded studio version. No small feat for a group renowned for big, bold, sweeping musical statements.
Styx’s contemporaries in Kansas mark their 40th anniversary on the current tour. Accordingly, the Topeka-based quintet delighted with a survey of cuts from its progressive rock heyday after christening the stage with 1995’s “I Can Fly.” Steve Walsh and Rich Williams represented the old guard, with Walsh pulling double-duty on lead vocals and Kurzweil keyboards, and the tall, eye-patched Williams ripping some sweet, searing guitar tones on “Point of Know Return” and “Hold On” with subtle (but authoritative) toe-taps on his effects pedals.
Both Williams and bassist Billy Greer finger-picked acoustics during uber-ballad “Dust in the Wind” as Walsh dialed up string sounds on his synth to augment fiddler David “Rags” Ragsdale’s melancholy strains. “Belexes” dipped back to Kansas’ 1974 debut, while the dense, polyrhythmic “Icarus” and “Icarus II” hailed from discs released two decades apart. The band gave a shout out to our nation’s military forces before launching into “Miracles Out of Nowhere” and Drastic Measures rocker “Fight Fire With Fire,” with cofounder / drummer Phil Ehart expertly thrashing his Evans heads and Zildjain cymbals. “Carry On Wayward Son” finally got everyone off their arses to sing and dance along to the 1976 Leftoverture FM staple.