Photo by Casey Ross
By Adam Waldman
The place – Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (location of the original Woodstock concert). The band – Styx. The date – August 13, 2023. A date that I won’t soon forget…
When you have gone to concerts consistently since the fall of 1982, you tend to forget some of the bands that you’ve seen and the dates and venues where you saw them. They all start to blend together as one happy memory, but there are highlights that rise above the din. Styx has always fallen into that category, but never more than this show.
This isn’t even the first time that I’ve seen Styx at this venue. And they are, without question, the band that I have seen the most in my lifetime. But this time was different. This was my first concert in well over three years. I couldn’t think of a better band to see to restart my concert journey after a hiatus that went on far longer than I would have liked.
Living in a rural area of New York in the Catskill Mountains doesn’t provide a lot of concert opportunities in my backyard. Bethel Woods is the one place that keeps me connected to live music. But that is not where I saw my last concert before covid shut the world down. It was back on Long Island (where I am originally from). The concert? Styx at Westbury Music Fair in November of 2019 in support of The Mission (see review).
I’m sure that I would have gone to concerts in 2020 if the world hadn’t shut down. Or in 2021 if I wasn’t worried about possible health consequences. Truth be told, the 2021 lineup was extremely limited anyway. 2022 was going to be the year, but life threw me a curveball that made it ill advised to be in large crowds.
In May of 2022, I was diagnosed with Medullary Thyroid Cancer (a rare cancer that affects around 1000 Americans each year). Major surgery was scheduled for mid-August, so I had to do what I could to remain as healthy as possible leading into it. Being in a concert crowd was not an option. So my first post-covid concert would have to wait.
The summer of 2022 was brutal. Thoughts of my impending surgery weighed on me even when I didn’t verbalize it to those close to me. One of the only things that kept me somewhat sane was leaning into the music that I loved. The music that had been with me my whole life. This wasn’t a time for music discovery. I just didn’t have the mental capacity to enjoy something new. Styx’s music, in particular, was a source of comfort in my darkest hour. Out of all of the artists that make up the soundtrack of my life, they are arguably the most influential.
It was the fall of 1978 when I first discovered the band. Hanging out with a friend in his older sister’s bedroom, he pulled out The Grand Illusion from her vinyl collection and put it on the turntable. It wasn’t the first full album that I had ever listened to, but it was the first as a shared music experience. I didn’t understand the meaning behind the songs, but I found it to be magical just the same. It remains one of my favorite albums of all-time to this day.
That weekend, I went to the local record store and purchased The Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight on cassette. I wore them both out since they were in heavy rotation of a limited record collection that I had just started the year before. There was something about Styx’s music that just drew me in and always made me want to hear more.
The following spring, my extended family came to visit us on Long Island. We took a trip to the local flea market, where I purchased my first two band shirts. One was The Grand Illusion. The other was Candy-O by The Cars. My mother was furious when I got home with my uncle and cousins. She thought that band shirts were something that only “dirtbags” wore. I had wanted these shirts for some time, but she always refused. I thought that if I brought them home with the whole family there, that she wouldn’t yell at me. I was wrong. To this day, my family still talks about the “black shirt incident.”
In the fall of 1979, I purchased Cornerstone as soon as it came out. Despite what happened with the black shirts earlier in the year, even my mom couldn’t resist the allure of “Babe” from that album. It’s the affectionate term that my parents called each other. She always loved the song, but it took on a bittersweet note after my dad passed away. Now that she has passed away also, the song holds an even more special place in my heart, as it reminds me of my world before I knew of tragedy and loss.
By the time that the summer of 1981 arrived, I was already obsessed with Paradise Theater, and spent the summer turning my friends at sleep away camp onto the album. That camp, which is only 15 miles away from Bethel Woods, has long since closed, but the memories remain. Everytime that I listen to Paradise Theater, it takes me back in time to the summer days of innocence and youth. A few summers later, my song with my girlfriend was “Don’t Let It End,” a fitting tune given that summer romances almost always ended because of geography and no transportation.
Fast forward to mid 1990s. While working at Billboard Magazine, I was invited up to BMG records for a meet and greet with Styx. They were promoting their live album, Return To Paradise on CMC Records (who was my client). Their visit came after I had already seen two consecutive shows in a row with my girlfriend. It wasn’t just the classics that we grew up on that made both nights magical. In fact, the song that may have been the most impactful was one of the new studio songs that was added to the live album, “Paradise.” Thinking that it was a perfect couples song that we both loved, I schemed to propose to her during that song at a third show on the tour. The plan was for us to fly across the country for a trip and then I would surprise her when Styx stopped the show to allow me to propose before playing “Paradise.” But it wasn’t meant to be.
If you’ve seen a Styx show, you know that they are a well-oiled machine. Stopping the show in the middle for someone to propose would have interrupted the flow of the concert. The idea was well intentioned if life was a rom-com, but the reality was actually a bit of a reach on my part. I totally understood when the request was politely denied. Truth be told, I hadn’t even looked into buying a ring at that point, so I would have been left scrambling had the request been granted.
About a year or so later, my girlfriend and I got engaged privately in a beautiful setting with only the two of us there. It was a long time coming, and the actual proposal couldn’t have gone any better. Left a bit overwhelmed and breathless, with tears of joy streaming down her face, she didn’t actually say “yes” right away. It took a few minutes for her to regain her composure and answer me. I can only imagine how long it would have felt in the middle of a concert since it felt like an eternity when it was just the two of us.
Just after the turn of the new millennium, we were married on the anniversary of the day that we met several years before. We danced our first dance to the song that was ours almost since the beginning, and danced our second dance to “Paradise.”
Not proposing at the concert turned out to be the best thing for us in retrospect. We would have been married sooner, but most likely on a different date since our original anniversary would have been mid-week. The timeline for having children would likely have been accelerated, so my son wouldn’t have been who he is, nor would my daughter. They were meant to be born a few years later. We talked about the “butterfly effect” of waiting to get engaged recently as a family, and how that delayed engagement shaped our lives.
Dennis DeYoung leaving the band in 1999 and being replaced by Lawrence Gowan came as a shock to both of us. We didn’t know anything about Gowan, and couldn’t imagine Styx going on without DeYoung. Although we still loved their music and never stopped listening to the band, it wasn’t until August of 2017 that we saw them play with Gowan at the helm (see review). Well worth the wait!
As previously mentioned, the last concert that I saw before covid was Styx in November of 2019. Of course, it made sense that Styx would be the first band that I experienced live after a lengthy concert hiatus.
While Styx at Bethel Woods on August 13, 2023 was my first concert in quite some time, it doesn’t mean that the band hasn’t been an important part of my journey in the years in between shows.
The covid shutdown was a depressing time for many, including me. One of the ways that I passed the time was going out for walks on the track. On days when I was feeling particularly down, I leaned into the music that has brought me joy since my childhood. Styx was in heavy rotation.
When I was diagnosed with Medullary Thyroid Cancer in 2022, I spent more time at the track trying to get into the best shape possible for surgery. One of the main bands that I listened to on my walks…Styx. Recovering in the hospital after surgery was a challenging time to say the least. Music helped make the dreadfully slow time pass just a bit more quickly. By now you probably guessed that the music of Styx was something that was a big part of my recovery.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to see Styx perform live once again recently. For some reason, the venue billed the show as Joe Bonamassa and Friends, leading me to believe that Styx would be the second band to take the stage after Don Felder. Thankfully, that was not the case. With all due respect to other musicians, you do not want to be the one that follows Styx on stage. Their brilliance outshines most others.
Without mentioning names, I saw a show years ago where there were three guitarists, turning a traditional 5-piece into a 6-piece band for the tour. It did not work. There was something awkward about having too much on stage. Leave it to Styx to make a 6-piece band seem like it is the only thing that makes sense. The three guitars never felt like overkill, especially because it made the unrivaled vocal harmonies that much brighter and stronger. As hard as they rock, and they do rock hard, Styx could do an acapella show and leave jaws dropping. The vocals are just that good, like a “gathering of angels” was sent down from the heavens to mystify the crowd.
Gowan is now 66 years old, but has the energy of someone in their twenties. Aside from a few tender moments where he sat at the piano, he spent the majority of the night shuffling, dancing, and jigging all around the stage. That is, when he wasn’t acrobatically playing his revolving keyboard. You almost feel like you’re getting exercise by watching this theatrical showman own the stage like few others can.
Maybe it’s because the band is powered by the unrelenting drumming of Todd Sucherman, a thunderous machine who is regularly recognized by the readers of Modern Drummer as being among the best in the world. Styx is all about precision, but Sucherman offers much more than just a steady beat. His palpable energy stays within the framework of the songs, but takes it to another level. He and bassist Ricky Phillips are perfectly locked in. But it wasn’t just Phillips on bass.
One of the highlights of the concert was when original bassist Chuck Panozzo was brought onto the stage to join Styx for a few songs. His well documented health issues would probably make handling the rigors of full time touring too much, but his presence on this night was greatly appreciated by me. Even when there were seven musicians (including Panozzo) on stage, it still never felt like it was too much. That is a tremendous credit to a band that seems to be frozen in time, and as good today as they ever were.
Of course, the main reason that Styx has stood the test of time is the presence of Tommy Shaw and James J.Y. Young. Beyond their abundant musical talent, this duo is responsible for steering the ship through tumultuous waters with the changes that have taken place since their journey began in the early to mid ‘70s. Once the revolving door starts with replacement musicians, it tends not to stop with most bands. However, Styx is not like most bands.
Although guitarist Will Evankovich is a fairly recent addition to the touring band, the rest of the members have been together for two decades. That is longer than the career length for most artists, but for Styx, it is merely the most recent chapter in a long, illustrious career. This band has been going strong for over five decades and shows absolutely no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
While it is unlikely that Styx will ever go back to releasing frequent albums, they deserve a ton of credit for their recent work. How many bands with this kind of longevity could successfully open a show with a new song and electrify the crowd? Not many that I can think of.
In addition to opening with “To Those” off of their latest album, Crash Of The Crown, Styx also played the album’s title track and a song called “Our Wonderful Lives.” The latter song was notable because of Shaw’s banjo playing, but to me it was notable for a different reason.
Another time, another place, I may have just appreciated the song for what it was, but after all that I’ve been through over the past year or so with my diagnosis, these lyrics hit home for me. Unlike the aforementioned songs with deep lyrical meaning to me, “Our Wonderful Lives” is of the moment, not nostalgic.
I don’t know if it was being back at my first concert in years, or being at a place where I found peaceful moments when my world was spinning out of control, or the lyrics themselves. I suspect that it’s a combination of both in addition to reflecting on where my life stands currently, but the chorus of the song got me a little choked up everytime that the band sang…
“Now the days go by
And we laugh and cry
While the dark cloud hovers nearby
We won’t give in yet
We shall not forget
We still have our wonderful lives”
Of course, no Styx show would be complete without a healthy dose of the songs that made up the soundtrack of the lives of an entire generation. If they played every song that I wanted to hear, the show would have probably been at least five to six hours long. Inevitably, if you’re a lifelong Styx fan, you are left wanting more no matter how long the set is. However, I was grateful to hear half of The Grand Illusion album (the one that started it all for me in 1978), in addition to a collection of songs that took me back in time to simpler days.
No words can ever fully describe how much Styx has meant to me from childhood to today. From the “best of times” to the unsure days where “I was in fear for my life,” Styx’s music has been there for me. And for that, I am eternally grateful.