By Adam Waldman
Once upon a time, rock artists released new albums on an annual basis. Styx released eleven albums between the years of 1972 and 1983. If not for the tension that arose out of creative differences stemming from Kilroy Was Here, there’s no telling how many more albums the band would have released in the ensuing years.
Fast forward to 2019. Generally speaking, album sales have plummeted due to streaming. The majority of rock artists’ income today is generated through touring and merchandising. Many “legacy” artists have stopped writing new material. Who can blame them? With diehard fanbases filling venues to hear classic material, it’s isn’t necessarily worth it to write new songs or release more albums. It’s virtually impossible to compete with nostalgic songs that have such strong roots with fans, but that didn’t deter Styx from releasing The Mission (a 2017 concept album). At the time, it was the first new music released by the band in 14 years.
In recent years, classic rock artists have done tours where they play albums in their entirety to celebrate a milestone anniversary. To do so with a new release requires a leap of faith that it will be embraced by fans. Styx has taken that leap on their current tour.
Musically, lyrically, and conceptually, The Mission is a cerebral listening experience. Though there are a handful of tracks that have the potential to be included in sets for years to come, most of the album is not likely to be played in future concerts. That’s what made seeing Styx at NYCB Theater at Westbury such a unique experience.
It was the second show that the band played in that venue in as many weeks (which is unusual). The chance to take a walk down memory lane would come later on in the evening after the completion of The Mission in its entirety.
The first part of the show felt like watching a rock opera. It was about letting the precision, prog-like musicianship wash over you. But that doesn’t mean that the crowd didn’t appreciate the experience, particularly tracks like “Gone Gone Gone” and “Radio Silence” (two of the more mainstream sounding songs), and “The Outpost” which brought the crowd to its feet in a standing ovation.
After a 20-minute intermission, Styx returned to perform an hour of hits mostly from the four albums that comprise the pinnacle of the band’s career (The Grand Illusion, Pieces Of Eight, Cornerstone, and Paradise Theater). James “JY” Young humbly bragged about the historic achievement of having four consecutive albums reach triple platinum status.
Though there are plenty of other songs that I love by the band, those four albums were a major part of my formative years, and the reason that Styx remains a favorite to this day.
It’s no fluke that the band’s rise to commercial prominence coincided with the arrival of Tommy Shaw. Though they may have had their differences, Shaw and Dennis DeYoung were perfect complements to each other for an indelible moment in time.
Shaw has been in the band for nearly 45 years, which would seem to indicate that he joined the band as a baby (given his Dick Clark-esque youthful appearance). Looks aside, his voice still sounds as good it did back in the band’s heyday. The same is true for Lawrence Gowan, who is just a few years younger than Shaw. This duo is as formidable as Shaw and DeYoung. At this point, Gowan’s tenure in Styx is actually longer than DeYoung’s.
What makes the current incarnation of Styx so special is the obvious bond that goes beyond music. There is no question that the Styx of today would not exist without the contributions made by DeYoung. But as the saying goes…“all good things must come to an end.” In the era of streaming music, the most lucrative aspect of being a musician today comes from touring. Watching Shaw, Young, and Cowan on The Big Interview With Dan Rather shortly before this concert, I learned that DeYoung’s lack of desire to tour was a major contributing factor in Styx moving on without him. That, and the fact that his vision for the future didn’t align with the rest of the band.
At their core, Styx is an extraordinary rock band that prides itself on excellence in their craft and bringing joy to fans with big, loud harmonies and gospel-like choruses. It started with DeYoung and has continued with Gowan. The main difference now is that the vocal harmonies are being delivered by a band of “brothers” actually living in harmony.
There is no competition anymore. No butting of heads, clashing of ideas, or struggle for power. If anything, the opposite is true. Styx is a cohesive unit made up of members who truly admire each other as musicians and as people. It’s what makes their on-stage chemistry so infectious.
There is no doubt that the audience at NYCB Theater at Westbury grew up listening to Styx. I have to imagine that the crowds are similar at all of their shows. It’s one of the things that makes seeing a Styx show so memorable. In a country that grows more divided by the day over politics, Styx’s classic songs are a joyfully nostalgic journey back in time to simpler, more carefree days.
Opening the second set with “The Grand Illusion,” the excitement in the room grew to a fever pitch. With all due respect to The Mission, the performance of the band’s most recent album in its entirety felt like the warm-up act for headliner that was classic Styx. The crowd appreciated the first act. How could you not? Their performance (especially the vocal harmonies) was brilliant. It’s just that the songs on The Mission don’t have the deep roots in the audience’s collective psyche that the classics do. New music generally doesn’t for our generation. It’s the nature of the (short attention span) beast of modern times.
Some longtime rock artists cash in on touring despite the fact that their best days have long since passed. Not Styx. They are as good today as they were several decades ago. It’s kind of mindboggling to hear dazzling vocal harmonies that seem to be frozen in time. And, with Gowan’s “Energizer Bunny” kind of energy, the shows actually feel livelier than they did decades ago.
The only challenge on this evening was the size of the stage in an historic theater that does many shows in the round. It made for tight quarters, but Styx made it work as they always do. When I saw them a few years ago, it was on an enormous stage in an outdoor amphitheater. Despite the smaller stage this time around, the show was just as memorable.
Something else that made the show memorable is an equipment malfunction. I found myself truly enjoying watching Shaw vamp as his acoustic guitar was being worked on. In my experience, their show is usually a precision, well-oiled machine that borders on perfection. Because Gowan is a fun-loving, go-with-the-flow kind of frontman, he was able to jump in and help make the best of the situation.
Back in 1997, on the Return to Paradise tour, I got the chance to meet the band up at their record label. It gave me the idea to reach out to their management to ask to propose to my (then) girlfriend just before the song “Paradise” at a show across the country on her birthday. They understandably declined due to the interruption that it would cause during a show that relies on precision timing. The long shot idea didn’t work out, but it never diminished my love of Styx in the slightest, and things worked out perfectly with my (now) wife anyway.
Once Shaw’s guitar was fixed, the show went on without a hitch. The setlist featured a number of songs from Styx’s four most successful albums, in addition to “Mr. Roboto.” Ironically, that fan favorite comes from the album that paved the way for Gowan to join the band after DeYoung’s departure.
Gowan also regaled the fans with his interpretation of Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” It’s quite possible that Elton was playing the song at the exact same time at his concert less than 10 miles away at the Nassau Coliseum. The song choice had nothing to do with the serendipitous timing of the shows happening at the same time, but it was a pretty cool moment just the same.
Although I loved every minute of the concert, there was one moment that stood out above all others. It was during “Come Sail Away” (the song that introduced me to Styx over 40 years ago).
NYCB Theater at Wesbury (formally Westbury Music Fair) is an intimate room that holds less than 3000 people. Unlike many venues that have a cavernous sound due to the high ceilings, this venue has a rich, warm sound. On stage were some of the best singers that rock and roll has ever seen. The audience was filled with presumably much less talent, but when we sang the opening of “Come Sail Away” in unison, it was a thing of beauty that sent chills running down my spine.
It made me feel lucky (and proud) to have grown up during a time when Styx’s music was such a big part of the soundtrack to our collective youth. The entire set of hits was an hour of bliss that made you forget about the worries of the world and live in the moment. During that time, there was no left or right. There was no red or blue. Just sheer joy as we basked in the unity of the music.
On The Big Interview With Dan Rather, Shaw said that Styx “testifies like a gospel chorus” when they take the stage. They always have, but these days, it comes across as more joyful than ever because of how close the members of the band are compared to the past.
Though Styx has now been around for nearly half a century, there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight for a band that is as good today as they ever were. Do not miss the chance to see this show if it comes to a town near you!