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Styx & Joan Jett 
with special guests Tesla

July 7, 2018
Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island
Chicago, Illinois

Heading out to this show, you could say I had expectations.
I had seen all three of these bands play as headliners, and all of them in small venues. Last time I saw Tesla it was 2001 and they were a raw, young, ravenous rock and roll band that lit up Chicago’s 1,400-seat Vic Theatre. It was in 1994 that I was watching Joan Jett slay a crowd of 1,100 at Chicago’s Metro. And as for Styx, well, let’s just say that I’ve seen them over 50 times in more states than I can count with my shoes on. 
Needless to say, my expectations were high going into this. With a venue that basically sits in Lake Michigan on the banks of the beautiful Chicago skyline, I was looking forward to a nice rewind on a beautiful summer night.

When this band exploded onto the stage with “I Wanna Live” from their Forever More album, I actually got a chill. Being that the air was a toasty 84 degrees, I’m pretty sure it was the band. When the band followed up with “Hang Tough” I found myself looking at my phone; not for a call or message, I needed to make sure it was in fact 2018 and not 2001 again. I don’t know how young this band is anymore, but they are just as raw and ravenous as they were back in that smoky theatre at the beginning of the millennium. Jeff Keith’s high-pitched rasp grabs you by the throat, and Frank Hannon’s guitar attack hits you right in the gut. Even on the slower ballads like “What You Give” and “Love Song,” these guys play like a hungry young band that’s kicking and scratching for their first break. Tesla  is very much “the real deal.” Get to this show early, folks. 

I should preface this by saying that there is no bigger Runaways fan than myself. The Runaways debut was one of the first records I ever heard, and I still cherish those songs. I have followed the careers of every member of the group over the years, and even had my dreams come true when I sat down with Lita Ford and Cherie Currie for interviews. So, Joan Jett is a hero to me. 
As Joan hit the stage with one of her most defining tunes, “Bad Reputation,” it was clear that she still maintains a bare bones, punk rock approach to performing. She has a knack for being able to turn a 40,000-seat arena into CBGB’s. You can imagine how elated I was when she not only did the obligatory Runaways hit “Cherry Bomb,” but also crushed a version of “You Drive Me Wild” for the receptive Chicago crowd. A great surprise that is worth the price of admission all on its own for any Runaways fan. Joan did have a small hiccup during her set as she lost her place near the end of “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah),” stopping the band and asking, “What song are you guys doing?” As they took a moment to talk and regain their groove, Joan pointed to herself as if to say “it’s on me,” and finished the song with fire and poise. 
Other than having manager Kenny Laguna on stage playing some percussion and keyboards like an overprotective father of sort, Joan’s band is a lean, young group that perfectly reflects her tough New York street attitude. Perhaps the best part of the Jett set is the top notch choice of songs, though. Aside from hammering out two Runaways songs, we got deeper songs like “Light Of Day” from her film with Michael J. Fox, “Fake Friends,” and a song called “Fresh Start” from an upcoming documentary about her life. It’s always great to hear the hits, but it’s the great songs that you may not expect that really make things a little extra special.

I should just say “Yadda yadda yadda” and be done, I suppose. 
Yes, Styx performed as tight as any band I’ve ever seen. Not sure how many times I’ve written that same line, but even I’m tired of hearing myself. I can honestly say that in some fifty performances that I’ve seen from this band, they have never had an “off night.” They are a divine, well-oiled machine, and this night was yet another one for the win column.
The only element of fear when I see this band is what might make the setlist and what might cut chopped. Talking to bassist Ricky Phillips a few days prior to this show, he pointed out that the set for the big arena show doesn’t contain any “sleepers,” which would be slower songs or deeper tracks. They planned to stick to the more rocking hits and the familiar fare. And, with the exception of a few great songs from their latest album The Mission, that’s exactly what they did. 
The band practically lifted the venue out of Lake Michigan when they blasted off with “Gone Gone Gone” from The Mission. Good God. The killer guitar riff from James “JY” Young, and the vocal attack and energy coming from Lawrence Gowan, firmly planted the band’s foot in the ass of the rabid Chicago crowd. We all know how difficult it can be to sit with a foot back there, which might explain why there were 30,000+ on their feet throughout the set. This band rocks. No, I mean, they really rock. Everything has a bombastic, supercharged feel to it. I often chalk up the “boom” to drummer Todd Sucherman. This guy is the best there is. I saw him play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on cymbals at a drum clinic and I got chills. The guy is an absolute monster, and he makes every song feel vibrant and energetic.

If you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of the band’s latest album, The Mission. It was amazing to hear how well these new songs fit into the set. When the band switched gears a bit and played “Radio Silence” it was as if I was seeing them back in the 70’s. The progressive structure of the song and the signature Styx harmonies are already timeless and classic, fitting in perfectly with songs like “Lady” and “Light Up”. 

There has been much discussion about the band’s addition of “Mr. Roboto” to the setlist. It was a song that this incarnation of the group has been resistant to for decades. For many, the song represents the demise of the classic lineup with Dennis DeYoung, and the band’s dive into a sea of cheesy sci-fi schlock. Fans see it as the reason Tommy Shaw jumped ship. And I must say, it was almost an out of body experience to watch Tommy Shaw and JY side-by-side singing “Secret secret, I’ve got a secret.” As Ricky Phillips pointed out in our interview, the band has changed some of the disco-like elements of the song and has given it an edge that accents all the great things about the tune. Like everything else the band does, the song was sharp and flawless, but I did feel like I was struck by a grenade.

Honestly, I could go on for days about the power of this band. Tommy Shaw is just as powerful and fervent as he was 30 years ago, in both voice and guitar skills. JY still tears up the solos with a hard rock fury. The rhythm section is one of the best ever with Phillips on bass and Sucherman on drums. And the “x factor” in all this is keyboardist/singer Lawrence Gowan. His voice is quite different from original singer Dennis DeYoung, but he is a ball of energy that fits this band like a glove. Playing intricate keyboard runs from the back of the keyboard, sprinting all over the stage, and standing on his keyboard as the show reaches its full crescendo are all a part of a complex repertoire for Gowan. A classically trained pianist with his roots in Canada, Lawrence Gowan is absolutely mesmerizing to watch with a keyboard.

Before heading to this show, go get The Mission. Learn it. Prepare yourself for “Khedive” and “The Outpost”. Then put all of your favorite rockers on - “Blue Collar Man”…. “Miss America”…. “Renegade” - and imagine them being 100 times more intense. That might get you somewhat prepared for the power that Styx will bring.


Ricky Phillips Interview

To listen to exclusive audio from my interview with Styx bassist Ricky Phillips, click here!!!

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