Styx made a career out of arena rock anthems in the late ’70s and early 80s, and the current touring version of the group keeps busy by performing those rock classics in a dizzying schedule of more than 100 dates per year. In 2010 the group undertook a special tour that featured the musicians performing their back-to-back classics, 1977’s “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” from 1978, in their entirety. This new release captures their performance at the Orpheum Theater on Nov. 9, 2010.
There’s no denying the overall quality of those two albums, which featured all-time Styx classics like “Come Sail Away,” “The Grand Illusion,” “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade.” And the current lineup of Styx – which consists of classic era members James “JY” Young and Tommy Shaw, ably complemented by longtime drummer Todd Sucherman, bassist Ricky Phillips and singer/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who replaced founding member Dennis DeYoung in 1999 – delivers the songs in renditions that are mostly faithful to the spirit of the original studio recordings, but depart from them enough to still be of interest.
The strength of this band is in its instrumental prowess, which is on impressive display here. Sucherman takes a somewhat more aggressive approach to the drum parts than original Styx drummer John Panozzo did, and Ricky Phillips throws in a few different bass flourishes as well, though the music of Styx is scarcely a showcase for a bass player in general.
Lawrence Gowan is a very accomplished keyboardist, and he honors DeYoung’s original parts for the most part, delivering note-for-note versions that offer little in the way of new interpretation, but certainly get the job done better than most rock keyboardists could have. Shaw and Young are a great guitar team, too, offering one of the musical highlights with their harmony solo in “Superstars.”
Vocally the band sound strong in their trademark harmonies, though they sound slightly different as sung by a different collection of singers and by four singers, instead of three. Shaw still sounds as strong as ever, too, demonstrating that he can still handle the range of songs like “Renegade” and “Man in the Wilderness,” which provides his best vocal on this collection.
Young was always the least effective lead singer in Styx, and that’s true now more than ever; he struggles in the top part of his range on songs like his trademark “Miss America” and “Great White Hope,” getting around some of the more challenging parts by employing a weak falsetto that simply doesn’t properly convey the original power of the melodies.
Gowan’s vocal performances are a mixed bag; too. He is more effective on songs that employ his thinner-sounding upper range, in which he sounds more like DeYoung’s original performances. Songs like “I’m Okay” serve his vocal style better, while other tracks that featured DeYoung’s unusual talent for long, clean sustained notes – like “Come Sail Away,” “Pieces of Eight” and particularly “Castle Walls” – just don’t come off as well.
That said, there’s still more to like than to dislike here for the average Styx fan, and in some cases these are the only live versions of these songs available on CD. That alone makes it worth owning for a Styx completionist, though if you’re a DeYoung purist you’ll probably find some of those renditions unpalatable.
This material has seen release before in a DVD version, and if you’re not looking specifically for something to listen to in the car it’s hands-down the better value for your money, since the multi-media elements of the staging were such an important part of this tour.