By Lorraine Kay
The rock and roll icons Styx and REO Speedwagon opened this year’s Antelope Valley Fair, the first in the new fairgrounds on Avenue H, last Friday, August 27. The concert was the very first on the new stage which will host a variety of concerts through the two week fair, with every night hosting another group of performers..
REO opened the concert with 90 minutes of pure vintage rock and roll featuring lead singer Kevin Cronin and founding member, Neal Doughty on keyboards, and long –time bass player for the band, Bruce Hall. Lead Guitarist Dave Amato and drummer Bryan Hitt also joined the band in pumping out hits like “Keep Pushin’”, “Roll with the Changes” and their first number one hit, “Keep On Loving You”.
Following REO onto the stage was another band of rock legends, Styx, which provided another 90 minutes of rock hits and some new material from their latest CD “Cyclorama”.. According to guitarist and singer James Young, the band’s decision to join this year’s Robertson Palmdale Honda Concert Series was due in part to the good time they had when they performed in Antelope Valley five years ago, “We had a great time when we were there 5 years ago . We were there with Lynyrd Skynyrd then and our pals REO Speedwagon will be with us this time. It should be a great night of rock and roll.”
The band that is best known for its albums from the late 70s and 80s with hits like “Lady”, “Come Sail Away”, “The Grand Illusion”, “Blue Collar Man”, “Renegade” and “Mr. Roboto”, have been back on the road for the past five years, performing the old familiar hits and introducing new tunes from its last studio release, in 2003, “Cyclorama”. Known for strong stage performances the band focuses much of their energy on touring. “Being in a rock band is about touring,” says Young. “It’s about writing songs and it’s about making records but it’s also about taking a wonderful smile onto that stage and making people feel good about themselves.
In an exclusive interview before the concert, when asked why the band tours so much Young said, “To me it is an incredible high. It’s legal and there is this energy that somehow channels through myself and my band mates, through the music that we’ve created, and our performance of it that really connects with people and lifts them up. Then they send us back another energy and their love and it just kind of builds up into this incredible high energy love fest that is exhilarating and endorphin raising – and I love my job – what can I tell you?
The band disappeared from the concert scene in 1983 when the band essentially broke up following the ill-fated “Mr. Roboto” experiment. But according to Young the band got help from the outside to encourage them to tour again. “Thank you Adam Sandler. Thank you South Park. Thank you to many different things that happened in the year 1999 that sort of all collected at once to sort of elevate us again as pop culture icons in a way. Ten years ago, in ’94, we thought maybe nobody would ever care about Styx again. And then we had a manager come along and tell us – “You known you guys have sold close to 30 million records and there is a huge audience for you guys out there. You just have to make it an event when you finally return to the concert stage as a collective – with all the guys back together and make it an event. Print the tickets and they will come.”
“And he was absolutely right,” said Young, “and we’ve been going ever since. We just decided, after not touring all that much from 83 to 96, particularly in 99 to rededicate ourselves to the concert stage. The old jazz drummer Art Blakey used to say, “If you are not appearing you’re disappearing”.
“We’re in an era.” He continued, “Where radio stations that are inclined to play Styx music are your classic rock stations. The stations that play current music look at us as dinosaurs – so the only way we could reach people with our new music generally is to perform live. It is something we have always excelled at and prided ourselves at – the excellence of our stage performance. There are rock and roll fans all over this continent and all over the globe, really, and we’re just set at marking the planet with Styx music until the day we die.”
Young is philosophical and positive about the down time that the band experienced. “You know sometimes things happen and you don’t know really understand why they have happened but its just the right time for them to happen or the right elements were in place. That’s why I preach flexibility and adaptability “
In addition, the band feels a responsibility to their fans when it comes to their stage performances according to Young, “I’m an optimist when it comes to human nature and particularly the therapeutic nature of music and the therapeutic nature of Styx music. People come up to us all the time and say – you know I had this really rough patch in my life three – five – ten years ago, and it was your song or your album that I listened to over and over and over and it helped me through the tough time and inspired me. And I’ll meet NFL football players that listened to our song “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” before they went out on the field because it said – “Get up, get back on your feet. You’re the one they can’t beat and you know it.”
For the band their performances have purpose, “Sometimes that mantle is hard to adjust to wearing but we are at a stage that we are comfortable with it and we recognize how we are perceived and how the real core individual that each one of us has apart from the facade that the public believes that we are. We have to stay in touch with that and we are very well-balanced at this point in time and love what we do.”
Prior to the band’s rededication to touring the band went through some serious personnel changes. Both founding members John Panozzo and his brother, Chuck Panozzo became ill in the early 90s, with John passing away in 1996. As the band geared up to set out on the road again it became apparent that Chuck no longer was able to handle the hardships of touring either and passed the job of bassist on to new blood. Dennis DeYoung, left the band for good in 1999 to pursue a solo career leaving the band in the hands of Tommy Shaw and Young. But if fans are wondering about the newest incarnation of the band, which includes Young, Shaw also on guitar and vocals, Ricky Phillips on bass, Lawrence Gowan on keyboards and Todd Sucherman on drums, Young feels confident that the fans, vintage and new will find the band true to the original Styx and more. “Yes, indeed, in fact I would tell you that we go out of our way to be true to the original feeling and sort of sonic and musical pallet that we painted with back then. The band we have now on stage is the band I always wanted to be in. We have a great bunch of guys that are supremely talented. Todd, our current drummer that replaced our drummer that passed-on is maybe the most skilled drummer in rock and roll, in my humble opinion. He definitely adds energy and flourish and finesse to the parts that the dearly departed John Panozzo laid down there in the first place. I think if anything it’s more powerful and executed with more finesse than it ever was while still remaining true to its original form. Lawrence, the current keyboardist can play circles around the previous keyboardist and he’s a much more athletic performer and a much more motivated individual to get out on the road and tour.”
To the skeptical vintage fans Young says, “Well, I’d say that there’s been millions of satisfied customers over the last five years that have seen this band. There are people both in and out of the business that say this is the best incarnation that has ever taken the stage. So I say, this is the way it’s going to be and if you love Styx music you ought to at least give this a chance because we will convert you. You will learn to love this incarnation of Styx as much as you loved the other one.”
And he was right. The fans seemed to love this new incarnation. Sucherman was right on – on every beat adding new energy to every song. Gowan’s youthful exuberance was contagious as the crowd caught the Styx fever in the wake of his playfulness on stage. The newest addition to the band, Phillips picked up the slack on the bass – keeping the rest of the band honest and in communication with Sucherman. And of course, Young and Shaw didn’t let anyone down with the usual and familiar trademark guitar licks and incredible vocals. The harmonies were tight and so Styx. In some ways it was sad to see the Panozzos and DeYoung gone but it did not diminish the fact that Styx is still a powerful concert band.
According to Young, yes, there are a few changes but only for the better. “There’s a lot more guitar than there was simply because the material is skewed more towards Tommy and I in this context. We still play “Come Sail Away”, still play “Lady”, still play “Grand Illusion” and we play snippets of things like “Castle Walls” and “Light Up’, and we even tip our hats to “Mr. Roboto” – be it ever so briefly. There’s just so much music to play here that we could never play it all.”
The way Young tells it, the band has weathered the storm and come out stronger musically and in every other way. “In my own mind we are a much happier and much more functional family and a much more well-balanced group of individuals both off and on the stage and in the current incarnation. “ He tells fans, “If you want to come to a great rock concert that makes you feel good and reminds you what a great live band Styx was and how much greater a live band it is now – come on down.”
One thing fans didn’t see was a bunch of contrived theatrics or hear computer generated click tracks behind the band. According to Young, “There are a lot of people using technology and they are playing to a click with backing vocals already stuck in there on some computerized thing that runs along in time to the show. So they have these amazing vocals that are only partly the guys on stage producing them at the time. Whereas with us, what you hear is what’s happening right then and there on the stage.” And in twisting a phrase from the movies, he continued, “We don’t need no stinking technology.”
Styx is not done in the studio yet, like so many other vintage bands, relying on their old recordings to fill a set list. Young says there is a new studio album in the works as well as some other fun and interesting projects. “Oh we’re working, we’re working. We’re gonna release a studio album probably a year from now. And we’ve got these recordings that we did with Coco Taylor and Johnny Johnson, who was Chuck Berry’s piano player. They’ll be coming itunes downloads probably sometime in October. There’s probably an EP that’s got those on it and a few other things that we’re doing live now that will come out the first part of next year. Also we are promised to do at least one cover of a Willie Dixon song on the next Styx record. And actually there’s a chance – there are some lyrics of his that are rumored to be in a vault somewhere – some unfinished songs that need music put to them – that one of those might wind up a Styx and Willie Dixon collaboration that would happen posthumously. And then again there’s a new Styx studio album due the third or fourth quarter of 2005.
The band did venture into the studio a few years ago to create “Cyclorama”, a CD with all new material. Young feels it was just the start of something new and good for the band. “We think Cyclorama, our most recent studio album is a great record. I think we had something to prove with that because a lot had been ascribed to the previous keyboard player – that it was all about him – so we made a great record without him and we’re going to continue to do that. As I say we are trying to climb Everest for the second time as a recording act.”
Both bands promised a great night of rock and roll to serious fans and an evening of fun to those not so serious and they delivered.
The fair runs through Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 6. For a complete line-up for the rest of the concert series and other grandstand events call the fairgrounds at 661/948-6060 or visit the website at www.avfair.com.