“And he taught me that Styx was one of the greatest American rock bands. They only caught a bad rap, because most critics are cynical assholes.” – Julian in “Big Daddy” (1999)
While the majority of Adam Sandler’s cinematic contributions are irredeemably puerile from the moment they’re given a green light, every once in a while he surprises us with something from the heart.
Julian’s blunt iteration to the courtroom regarding Styx is one of those instances, because, even if the film is utter tripe, he still raises an interesting point about a band many consider to be unjustly victimized by the critical establishment.
Then again, I don’t think Styx ever set out to be accepted by the Jann Wenners of the world. They set out to create vibrant arena rock compositions predicated on riffs and showmanship, both of which fell out of favor once the synth-crazy 1980s infiltrated the group’s brain trust.
1983’s “Kilroy Was Here” was the tipping point for fans and critics alike, because the continental divide between original vocalist Dennis DeYoung and guitarists James Young and Tommy Shaw had torn Styx apart from the inside out.
What resonates most about Styx now that 30 years have elapsed since the “Mr. Roboto” debacle is that they’re still out there injecting audiences with material worthy of any stage this world has at its disposal.
“Equinox,” “Crystal Ball,” “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” should all be viewed as classic examples of how to marry screaming guitars to prog-rock compositions. The hooks are memorable, the musicality is always inspired, and every member displays the utmost professionalism when it comes to giving the audience a hard-fought rock-and-roll experience.
Their recent three night stand at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, Ontario made the case even stronger, as Young, Shaw, and Canadian favorite Lawrence Gowan gave the faithful a set drawing from each of the aforementioned albums.
Young stated that they opened with “The Great White Hope” simply “because they could,” which tells you all you really need to know about Styx in 2013. They’ve taken the working class charisma of their early days and fashioned themselves into a touring powerhouse without the faintest air of self-parody, a corner which plenty of other legacy acts from that era have backed into.
Despite not having released any original songs since 2003’s Cyclorama, Styx has found a way to keep itself and the hits fresh on a nightly basis.
“Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” rallied the crowd with its anthemic verve, “The Grand Illusion” allowed Gowan to dazzle with his voice and spinning keyboard and “Lady” romanced every woman in the room on command.
Shaw and Young comprise a blistering tandem capable of transcending the most mundane of melodies and, when each decide to let loose, the audience reaps the benefits.
Shaw brought the house down with “Man in the Wilderness” and “Crystal Ball,” two mini epics that hold their own against anything else from the late ‘70s. It’s almost unfair how well he can sing and shred in a matter of seconds, so, if he’s not the epitome of rock stardom, I don’t know who is.
Later in the set, Young delivered a flammable “Miss America” much to the delight of the guys in the first few rows, all of whom appeared to mimic every chord change and drumbeat as if it were a final exam.
They even brought out original bassist Chuck Panozzo to play on “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” and “Come Sail Away,” further bridging the gap between the old and new generations of Styx.
With all due respect to Dennis DeYoung, I won’t hesitate to put forth the notion that Lawrence Gowan is just as electrifying, if not more so, than DeYoung ever was. He’s an operatic force with impeccable range and infinite sincerity, and also one of my favorite singers on the scene.
His showstoppers came in the form of “Suite Madame Blue” and “A Criminal Mind,” the latter of which is a hidden gem from his 1985 solo record “Strange Animal.” Gowan’s voice awakened the luxurious confines of the Avalon Ballroom and solidified why Tommy Shaw extended an invitation to join Styx back in the spring of 1999.
Bassist Ricky Phillips and drummer Todd Sucherman round out the lineup, and add that little something extra to every arrangement Styx brings to the table.
Adam Sandler and Jann Wenner couldn’t be on more opposite sides of the critical spectrum, but, when it comes to Styx, Sandler will always have the edge.