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An Evening Of Styx

The Northern Lights Theater @ Potawatomi Bingo & Casino
February 20-22, 2014


The Styx concert vibe is always a unique experience to be absorbed into.

Being a person that loves every facet of the band, old and new, and having seen them upward near 50 times, I get a real kick out of crowd reaction and things I hear around me. The crowd is usually a fervent potpourri of people. There are fans from the early 70’s that reminisce of seeing the band at the local high school; there are fans from the band’s classic mid- to late 70’s era; and there are fans that only know the band for their 80’s radio hits. (And then there’s the Styx Chyx.  That’s the breed of Styx fan that considers 50 shows to be a “newbie.” That’s a whole other subject entirely.) There were all these people and more in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when the band took up residence at the Northern Lights Theater at Potawatomi Bingo & Casino for three straight nights.

The Northern Lights Theater is a plush and “loungy” venue that seats about 500. It’s a little low key for a hard rock band, but perfect for a band that plays syrupy ballads. In other words, Styx was like a bull in a china shop. That’s right, this ain’t your momma’s Styx. This is a hard rock band that explodes onto the stage, and keeps a raging fire going throughout their entire set.

 While fans of the early days are looking all over the ground for their jaw at the end of these shows, folks that have not followed the band’s turbulent history noticed big hits like “The Best Of Times” and “Mr. Roboto” omitted from the setlist. But it’s the chardonnay drinking couples that were waiting to share a tender kiss during “Babe” that left these performances with their eyelids pinned to their foreheads and blood dripping from their earlobes. (I must sadistically say that they’re the most fun to watch.) No matter what all of those groups were feeling about the set, they all had one common word to sum it all up – “Wow.”

I can honestly say that I have never seen this band falter. I have seen multiple performances from many bands, and none of them have been perfect every time out …except Styx. There’s a reason that the fans that call themselves Styx Chyx have seen them hundreds of times (each), and it’s not only because Tommy Shaw is cute as a button. It’s because there is no tighter band out there. There are bands like Dream Theater that are just as tight and perfect, but you can’t get any tighter.

The band did seem extraordinarily comfortable with this venue, changing two or three songs in the set from night to night, and pulling out songs that they haven’t done in years. Night #1 saw the band discovering their crowd. Shaw pointed out the fact that he could see everyone in the venue from his spot on the stage, and he had a twinkle in his eye when he said it. Keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan sited “booth dancing” as the new Olympic sport, as he witnessed fans trapped in confining booths trying to contain themselves. I think they felt a certain tension from the crowd on that first night. You had all these people witnessing a hard rock band that was fiercely throwing down, yet folks still felt restricted to stand up and express themselves in such a posh atmosphere. You could see tension building in almost every face. There were either a whole lot of people that needed to pee, or this band was striking a nerve.

Hearing a song like “Pieces Of Eight” in this hard rocking set added a softer, more artistic touch, but it was Cornerstone’s “Boat On The River” that really threw the set in an artistically cultural direction. With the bulk of the setlist drawing from the classic Grand Illusion/Pieces Of Eight era, it was great to hear the folky ethnicity of “Boat On The River.” As Shaw appeared with a mandolin for the song, he told about his introduction to the instrument, and how it wasn’t as easy to play as he thought it was going to be. It was pretty clear from his performance that he eventually got the hang of it. The song also finds JY strapping on an acoustic guitar, which is a rare sight.

Night #2 saw the band very comfortable in their own skin, doing songs like “One With Everything” and “Snowblind,” the latter of which guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young said they hadn’t done in probably nine years. But the real sign of comfort came when Gowan spoke to the crowd. If he ever chose to stop making music there would be a career in stand-up comedy waiting for him. His smile was electric and his demeanor radiated a warmth that came straight from the heart. At one point, he apologized for his scratchy speaking voice, explaining that he had been feeling a bit under the weather. As he sprayed some throat soothing agent into his mouth and started singing, I did wonder if the tour schedule and an illness might make for a vocal struggle. Not a chance. Speaking might have been a little rough, but when he sang he was near perfection. Gowan had big shoes to fill when he took over for original singer/ keyboardist Dennis DeYoung, but watching Gowan on night #2 you could almost hear those shoes bursting at the seams.

As I said earlier, I’ve seen this band nearly 50 times and they are always a picture of perfection, but this second night had a certain electricity about it. The alternating vocals of JY and Tommy Shaw on “Snowblind,” and the superhuman rumbling of drummer Todd Sucherman on the great “One With Everything” really threw this set over the top. Every band strives to get to this point; a level of musicianship that’s rarely witnessed in the live setting.

 

By night #3 the band was attached to this place. They embraced the lounge feel, and even challenged Gowan’s voice with the classic “Suite Madame Blue.” But the real shocker came when Shaw came armed with his mandolin again. He randomly began doing a verse from “Best Thing,” a rarely heard single from the very first Styx release. But I guess this really isn’t too unusual for the band, as they seem to do the material that they want to do. Each night was stuffed with deeper cuts like “Superstars,” “I’m O.K.,” “Light Up,” and quite a few others. They sent a message with their setlists that said, “We embrace the depth of our early years, and we are not going to be defined by syrupy radio ballads.” It was a message that came across loud and clear, with a whole lot of ballsy energy.

 

One of the highlights of every evening for so many longtime fans was the appearance of original bass player Chuck Panozzo. Panozzo will occasionally make an appearance and join the band for a couple songs. Due to an ongoing battle with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, he cannot handle the rigors of the insane tour schedule, so his appearances always touch the hearts of the fans.

            

These three nights were defined by this band’s musicianship, their energy, and their choice of songs. For a band to play at this level almost every night for months on end, you have to wonder what kind of human a guy like Tommy Shaw is. Every single time I watch Shaw sing “Man In The Wilderness” my body goes completely numb. His voice pierces the air on the delicate verses, and he nails every high note with incredible accuracy and strength. And all the time that they are nailing each and every note, they are actively running over every inch of the stage, kicking and leaping as much as the twentysomethings out there. This is a band that gets in your face and rocks way harder than any casual fan would ever imagine. With Shaw now in his 60’s, and JY a young 64, they show absolutely no signs of stopping. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the next time I see them they take me on a Midnight Ride or fit me with some Shooz.

I can hardly wait.

                                      



February 20, 2014

The Grand Illusion

Too Much Time on My Hands

Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)

Lady

Light Up

Man In The Wilderness

Miss America

Boat On The River

I'm OK

Crystal Ball

Pieces of Eight

Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)

Come Sail Away

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Rockin' the Paradise

Renegade

February 21, 2014

The Grand Illusion

Too Much Time on My Hands

Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)

Lady

Light Up

One With Everything

Man in the Wilderness

Miss America

Snowblind

I'm O.K.

Crystal Ball

Superstars

Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)

Come Sail Away

---------------------------------

Rockin' the Paradise

Renegade

 

February 22, 2014

The Grand Illusion

Too Much Time on My Hands

Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)

Lady

Light Up

Man In The Wilderness

Miss America

(excerpt from Best Thing) / Boat On The River

I'm O.K.

Crystal Ball

Suite Madame Blue

Superstars

Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)

Come Sail Away

---------------------------------

Rockin' the Paradise

Renegade

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