Judge Jim Thomas had a blue collar until an unfortunate tie-dye accident; now it's ultraviolet and fuchsia.
"If you think your life is complete confusion 'cause your neighbor's got it made, just remember that it's a Grand Illusion; deep inside we're all the same."
Styx was one of the great '70s supergroups, but they didn't really hit their stride until the latter part of the decade, after guitarist/vocalist/young whippersnapper/fellow Alabama native Tommy Shaw joined in 1975. The dynamic tension between the hard rock sensibilities of Shaw and founding member James Young and the more theatrical bent of keyboard/vocalist Dennis DeYoung came to full bloom in 1977's The Grand Illusion and 1978's Pieces of Eight, both of which went triple platinum, launching the band into the stratosphere. Following those albums, the aforementioned dynamic tension escalated to USA versus USSR levels, with DeYoung pushing the band to move towards a more theatrical sound. Peace was maintained with 1981's Paradise Theatre, but the powderkeg finally exploded in the wake of 1983's Kilroy was Here, and the band went their separate ways.
The inevitable reunion tour came, but the conflicts remained too ingrained, and DeYoung went his own way; the rest of the band replaced him with Lawrence Gowan and moved on. In 2010, Styx announced an intriguing tour: they would play, in their entirety, the breakout albums The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight. Not only was it the first time in years that some of the material had been performed on stage, but some of the songs had never been performed on stage. Eagle Rock brings us Styx: The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight, recorded live November 9, 2010, at the legendary Orpheum Theatre in Memphis. Truly, these are the best of times.
Here's the set list:
The Grand Illusion
Pieces of Eight
Frankly, the first album is markedly superior to the second—Pieces of Eight has a couple of songs that are borderline trite—but the band's energy and talent keep the second set from flagging. The staging is fairly simple: A giant plasma display serves as the backdrop, displaying everything from a Star Wars-esque text crawl to neon lights to video of a '70s kid pulling out The Grand Illusion album and putting it on a turntable. During the concert, the band even notes when they're going from Side One to Side Two, at which time the kid on the video flips the record. God, I'm old.
The current Styx lineup simply rocks. James Young is still kicking it old school, though his voice isn't quite what it used to be. Tommy Shaw, on the other hand, should be thought of as exceptional vodka: Absolut Badass. He truly shines, a delightful combination of energy and artistry, particularly when he works the crowd into a frenzy on "Blue Collar Man." (Note: Technically, Shaw isn't an original member, but he was a member when these two albums were made, and that's close enough for me.) They're joined by original bassist Chuck Panozzo—Panozzo's HIV-positive, and performs with the group on a limited basis (Ricky Phillips plays bass when Panozzo isn't available, and guitar when he is). Chuck's brother John was the original drummer, but his health started to fail in 1996 and he was replaced by Todd Sucherman shortly before John's death. Sucherman is one of the best drummers on the planet—seriously, in 2009, Modern Drummer magazine named him the best rock drummer on the planet (for further evidence, consider that he was once the drummer for Spinal Tap and he's still alive). Some Styx purists still grouse about Gowan being an inferior replacement for DeYoung; whatever. Gowan has a wonderful voice; it just isn't as strong as DeYoung's on the higher notes. For the most part, it's not a problem; he has a strong voice, and it blends with the other voices beautifully. Unfortunately, the very first song, "The Grand Illusion," places that weakness front and center, making it easy for the naysayers to complain; however, it's easily set aside because everything else is just so damned good. They have that Styx sound—and I listened to the original albums for a few days just to makes sure. In contrast, when I saw the Return to Paradise concert back in 1996, Kansas opened for Styx. At that point, the only original member left in Kansas was drummer Phil Ehart, and frankly, they sounded more like a pretty good cover band.
On the technical side of things, I can only say two words: Eagle Rock. It's like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for concert discs. The concert was recorded with eleven high-def cameras, so you get a great view of everything; the AVC/MPEG-4 encoded images are crisp enough that you can see the grain on the guitars and the weave on the shirts. All three audio tracks are solid, though I have a personal fondness for the DTS-HD track. A little more lower register might have been useful, but Styx's music tends towards the upper registers. The extras are the only real disappointment—a series of brief interviews with the crew, giving us glimpses of their jobs. The interviews themselves are actually pretty cool, because they show all the little things that are critical to a performance, like the split-second coordination needed to switch guitars between songs. It all adds up to about 30 minutes or so, and it's good—unfortunately, that's all there is. The band is all but absent, which is inexplicable given the significance of these two albums, particularly for Tommy Shaw, who blossomed as a songwriter on these two albums. You expect some kind of retrospective, and it just isn't there.
No illusions here—this disc rocks. People claiming that Gowan doesn't belong in the band are fooling themselves, and should probably just sail away into the wilderness.
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Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
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