PHOENIX— This day had a solemn beginning as the news announced that the legendary drummer for Rush, Neil Peart, had passed away. Styx keyboardist Lawrence Gowan took the opportunity to pay tribute to his fellow Canadian musician by singing and playing a beautiful acoustic piano cover of “Limelight”. The lyrics pulled at the heartstrings and the chords and melody were hauntingly mesmerizing. As the song faded and commiserating fans’ cheers resounded, Gowan declared, “Thank you for one of the greatest drummers and certainly one of the all-time greatest lyricists, Neil Peart.” This was a highlight of the evening and made this particular show very special.
Drummer Todd Sucherman provided a link to a fan’s video on Facebook and wrote:
The show kicked off on a high note as the song “Gone, Gone, Gone” electrified the theater-in-the-round. This song also opens the latest Styx studio album, The Mission, which was released two and a half years ago and put Styx back on the radio as it rose to 45 on the Billboard 200. There was no opening act, so Styx had time to unleash all of the “classics” and still sprinkle in a few more songs from The Mission: “Radio Silence”, “Red Storm”, “The Outpost”, and the classically influenced “Khedive” piano piece. Veteran guitarist James “JY” Young hinted at the fact that there may be new Styx music coming our way in 2020. The die-hard Styx fans were thrilled to hear this, but everyone went wild when they launched into the evening of hits, beginning with that classic Hammond organ intro to “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights).”
Most bands have a “lead” singer, but at a Styx show, the lead vocals (and bantering duties) are shared between the three frontmen in the band: guitarist Young (original member since the inception of the band in 1972), guitarist Tommy Shaw (who replaced John “J.C.” Curulewski in 1975), and keyboardist Gowan (who replaced Dennis DeYoung in 1999). Replacing DeYoung meant filling some big shoes, since his iconic voice and hit songwriting abilities were equally as important as his talent on the keys. But for the past twenty years, Gowan has held his own with studio albums and touring worldwide. Gowan’s keyboard and vocal skills were put to the test with the next pair of songs penned by DeYoung: “The Grand Illusion” and “Lady.” The keyboards were spot-on. The vocals were noticeably different from DeYoung’s, but very strong, confident, and blended wonderfully with signature Styx harmonies.
The original rhythm section of Styx was comprised of twin brothers Chuck and John Panozzo on bass and drums respectively. Tonight, Chuck would make several guest appearances, but it was Ricky Phillips on the Imola 5-string bass for most of the evening. Phillips was was best known as the bassist for The Babys and later a founding member of Bad English, but then joined the band in 2003. Chuck is still a current member of Styx, but he has limited his playing time due health issues related to HIV. Sucherman has held the drum throne since 1995, taking over for John Panozzo, who was battling cirrhosis of the liver and subsequently passed away in 1996. Gowan introduced Sucherman and mentioned that his mother was in the audience that night, and also dropped a bit of trivia that last year, Modern Drummer Magazine listed him as the number one Classic Rock Drummer in the World.
Danny Zelisko had Styx here at the Celebrity Theatre exactly one year ago for a two-night stand and welcomed them back tonight and tomorrow night to do it again. Last year, both nights appeared to be sold out; tonight, there were only a handful of seats that seemed to be open. It is such an intimate venue for seeing a band, and the sound is always crisp and clear. The rotating stage allows more people to feel closer to the front of the stage. The novelty wears off at times when the stage is facing away during a favorite song, but Styx did a pretty good job of running around the stage when they weren’t stationed to a microphone. One notable exception was on the song “Red Storm”, when the stage stopped rotating for the whole song, presumably because Phillips was perched up high on a riser behind the drum set (author’s note – of course, they were facing the other direction from me for this whole song).
As the stage got its groove back, JY stepped up to the mic to introduce the next song. He reminisced about the old days of lighting lighters for certain songs, but conceded that there were dangers. “We can approximate that with the cell phone camera light…” he said, “…Let’s approximate the way those stars might look and LIGHT IT UP EVERYBODY!” It was exhilarating to be immersed in a sea of LED lights throughout the entire theater as the band broke into “Light Up,” one of only two songs played from the Equinox album from 1975 (the other one was “Suite Madame Blue” to top off the first set).
Chuck Panozzo made his first appearance on stage during “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).” He had played the powerful yet simple quarter notes on this Tommy Shaw anthem from The Grand Illusion Album released on 7-7-77. The crowd gave a very warm welcome as Shaw introduced him as “Our original bass player, Mr. Charles Panozzo,” and he stepped into the stage lights looking dapper in a navy blue sports jacket and wielding a black Rickenbacker bass. Instead of leaving the stage, Phillips picked up a double-necked guitar with a 12-string and a 6-string neck and joined in on the massive sound.
There was a brief 20-minute break before the second set. There was a fundraiser with a giveaway guitar benefiting Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock Foundation that was introduced by Tim and NeanderPaul from KSLX radio station.
The second set contained some of the usual suspects from the vault of hit songs, including “Come Sail Away,” “Too Much Time On My Hands,” “Miss America,” and the definitive power ballad “Crystal Ball.” There were also brief reminders to pick up the newest album, which featured “The Outpost” and “Khedive,” but the song that was a pleasant surprise for the evening was the title track from Pieces of Eight. This song is a fan favorite, but was overshadowed by “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” from that album and was not released as a single. Noticeably absent from the setlist was anything from the Cornerstone album, including their only number one single, “Babe” nor anything from Edge of the Century (“Love is the Ritual” nor “Show Me The Way”, which charted at number three).
The song “Mr. Roboto” had been absent from the setlist for many years although it also charted at number 3. This wasn’t surprising since it may be the defining song that put a rift in the band dynamic. More importantly, it polarized fans into either the rocker camp that thought of Styx in terms of “Renegade” and “Miss America,” or the pop music camp that thought of Styx in terms of “Babe” and “Best of Times.” Fortunately, there is a lot of crossover (or at least no hostilities that lead to disowning the band). What caused more controversy was when the song returned to the setlist a little over a year ago, even though DeYoung wasn’t there to petition for it. The live version is a little amped up, and the good news is that it was well received by fans, finding its way into the coveted encore position.
However, there was still one song left that even “Mr. Roboto” couldn’t upstage and that was the aforementioned “Renegade.” This is the song that starts with soft and haunting vocal by Shaw: “Oh mama, I’m in fear for my life from the long arm of the law.” At this point, everyone’s hand raised to their chest as they mimicked the heart beats that still echo to this day from John Panozzo’s kick drum. There was even a wash of red light over the massive drum set that kept time with these beats. Another line. More heartbeats. Silky three-part harmony for the next line. More heart beats as more of the crowd joined in. More harmonies. One beastial scream and the crowd was in the proverbial palm of their hands as the hardest rocking song of the Styx catalog closed the show.
Styx was flawless. The talent in the band is simply overwhelming. It is so hard for a band that is branded a “classic” rock band to be relevant in a world where “classic rock” stations won’t play anything new from their “classic rock” artist roster. Meanwhile, new rock stations tend to ignore new music from bands that are considered classics. Yet Styx has maintained a growing fan base by continuing to be road warriors and taking the music to every corner of the planet, continuing to write and record music that is true to their roots and diverse style.
Check out The Mission to form your own opinion if you haven’t heard it yet. Here’s to great new music from them in 2020, and hopefully yet another return trip to the Valley of the Sun to see them again.
Photographer: Mark Greenawalt
- Gone, Gone, Gone
- Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
- The Grand Illusion
- Radio Silence
- Red Storm
- Light Up
- Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
- Rockin’ the Paradise
- Suite Madame Blue
- Miss America
- Crystal Ball
- Pieces of Eight
- The Outpost
- Too Much Time On My Hands
- Limelight (Piano/Vocal Tribute To Neil Peart)
- Come Sail Away
- Mr. Roboto
Photography © Mark Greenawalt
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