BY MIKE WOLVERTON Styx became my first favorite band around the time of 1980’s Paradise Theatre album, when I was all of 11. Well, the Beatles were my first favorite band, but Styx was my first favorite active band. I’ve never caught them live, because by the time I started going to concerts my tastes had, um, evolved. It had crossed my mind to catch them as they’ve toured these last few years, but they always seemed to be playing with REO Speedwagon (I will admit I was tempted when they shared a bill with The Fixx). When I saw they were playing the Susquehanna Center in Camden on July 4th with Yes, I knew the time was right. I’m not a huge Yes fan, but I have The Yes Album and I dig it. So I traded in some more marriage capital for a Fourth of July hall pass to The Geezer Show.Neither band has their lead singer anymore. Jon Anderson and Yes parted ways after the band recruited a replacement (Benoit David) in 2008 while Anderson was ill. Styx has long been without Dennis DeYoung, who they replaced with Lawrence Gowan in 1999. And calling DeYoung the “lead singer” may be unfair, as guitarists Tommy Shaw and James Young are both prominent singer-songwriters. I wasn’t sure which of the two would headline, but it turned out Styx had the early slot.
Not surprisingly, the set emphasized the songs of Shaw and Young. They opened with “Blue Collar Man” off of Pieces of Eight, a quality hard rocker. After “The Grand Illusion,” they started to go off the track, playing some number that had to be “new”. Sorry, I know I should have some respect for what you are doing now, but I really only want to hear the stuff from 1975-1980. Deep down, you know this, Styx — so please stick to the script. Even from that period, I got a little bored during “Suite Madam Blue“ and “Crystal Ball.” But they gave us a heavy dose of The Grand Illusion album, with quality versions of “Man in the Wilderness“ and “Fooling Yourself.” It was the fourth of July, so James Young socked us with “Miss America” and they rounded it out with classics like “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade”.
I’ve so far failed to mention the cheesiness of this spectacle. I give Shaw and Young credit as honest rockers, but there were any number of cringe-worthy choreographed rock moves, such as the three guitarists grouped in the center of the stage going off on solos, a la Poison. At one point Young went to the back of the stage, raised his arm and was joined by Shaw. When Young dropped his arm, the two of them raced diagonally towards the front left of the stage, then did the joint guitar solo thing. These guys are 60 years old!
I think I also grew as a person during this set. Sometime during the middle, I was getting disappointed with the setlist, jonesing for some Paradise Theater, and I realized that I’ve got to get over being disappointed about setlists and just go with it. I resolve to stop complaining and start appreciating. There, it’s working already.
On to Yes. I liked this band in the ‘80s. I owned 90125 and I remember watching MTV waiting for the video for “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, which was pretty fucking rad at the time if I remember correctly. But I recognized that this 1980s sound is significantly different that the “classic” Yes albums of the 1970s (i.e. The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, etc.).
The whole feel changes at these summer shows when the sun goes down — such a sense of heightened excitement. And it’s possible that any intoxicants one may have consumed contributed to the vibe. But from the beginning of the first song (“Tempus Fugit”) I was captivated. When the song was over I thought, “I want every song to sound just like that.” And most of them did. Yes didn’t skip a beat when they played their new material, it sounded just as good as the rest. I loved Steve Howe and, haircut aside, I loved Chris Squire. I thought the replacement singer was good, especially considering that Jon Anderson is not an easy voice to replace. And the Roger Dean visuals were and added bonus. The whole thing was quite tubular.
I’ve been trolling the Yes message board today and the hardcore Yes fans are almost universal in the belief that the show was sloppy, poorly-rehearsed, with numerous screw-ups and the musicians are embarrassing themselves. And they all HATED the set list. It just goes to show you it’s all a matter of perspective: I went with no expectations and was blown away. They went expecting perfection and were disappointed. If that was a bad performance then I’m even more impressed.
Conclusion: Styx has a few popular tunes they are living off of, they are high energy and enjoying it, but it is all nostalgia, I get no sense that they are remotely relevant in a 2011 context. Yes is a real, quality, kick-ass band with impeccable musicianship and my eyes have been opened. I came a Styx fan and left a Yes fan. There will be a few new Yes albums coming home with me in the coming months. And this is just the beginning, please come join me on my month-long Geezer Concert Odyssey:
July 4: Yes and Styx, Camden
July 16: A Perfect Circle, Festival Pier
July 24: Black Francis, NYC
July 28: Strawberry Fields (Beatles Tribute), Connolly Park, Voorhees
Aug 4: Big Audio Dynamite, Electric Factory
If I put it in print it makes it harder for the wife to say no!