It’s been eight long years since Styx last crossed the pond and on that occasion they opened a three way battle of the AOR behemoths with Foreigner and Journey, and for many observers stole the show.
This belated return was a true occasion worth waiting for though, as it was a full headline set, and in the plush, three-tiered surroundings of the London Palladium which has been high on the list of most people’s favourite venues since they started having rock acts a few years ago.
I was pleasantly surprised that the place was all but sold out, and as a special treat – billed as ‘An Evening with Styx’, the gig saw no support but instead two sets totalling over 2 hours. In that sense it was a more satisfying experience than both their last headline visit in 2005, when they were plugging their ‘Big Bang Theory’ covers album or indeed the Greatest Hits-type set that I have seen them play at festivals in the USA which they can knock out in their sleep.
There was therefore a very special, almost revivalist, atmosphere in the house even when they opened with a relatively new song in the rocky ‘Gone Gone Gone’ from the Mission album, Lawrence Gowan soon departing his keyboard to be a full-time frontman.
However rather than play the album in its conceptual entirety, they switched to timeless classics in ‘Blue Collar Man’ sung by the somehow ageless Tommy Shaw in his high pitched voice and ‘The Grand Illusion’ with all the pomp associated with the band.
Lawrence then played the keyboard intro to ‘Lady’, leaping from his keyboard as the song rocked out in the second half. However other ballads were absent from the set and any casual observers expecting the sugary ‘Babe’, their one UK top 40 hit, not to mention ‘The Best of Times’ would have been disappointed.
Prior to hitting commercial paydirt at the end of the seventies Styx were one of the movement leaders in using progressive and heavy influences to create a distinctively American brand of pomp rock, shown to good effect on ‘Light Up’. It was fitting that the song was introduced by James (JY) Young as the one remaining member from those days, as he spoke of the band’s debt to the English invasion and seeing The Who in the sixties.
Tommy introduced the new album and ‘Radio Silence’ was a choice cut showcasing some of the outstanding four part harmonies which were to be a recurring theme throughout the night. The other two vocal numbers, ‘Red Storm’ and ‘The Outpost’, one either side of the interval were less obvious and harked back to their more progressive years in nature.
The set was relatively sparse and gimmick free but they made full use of the whole stage and the current line up – unchanged for the last 15 years – are a joy to watch with the smiles as they trade places charging around the stage. Lawrence’s hyperactive, keyboard- spinning showmanship divides opinion but in my view only adds to the show’s dynamic choreography and despite the purple tinges in his hair, I did perceive he had toned his act down a bit over the years.
The luxury of a long set meant we got some relative rarities – Tommy introduced ‘Boat On The River’, playing mandolin and it was easy to relate to his story of how mainland Europeans took it to their hearts, reminding them of their traditional folk music.
The first half of the set just got better and better- Tommy played an acoustic snatch of ‘Man In The Wilderness’, which was apposite as he then welcomed on stage original member Chuck Panozzo for ‘Fooling Yourself’. This was a great surprise as I was unsure whether his heath still permitted touring, and there was so much going on during the song, from Tommy’s acoustic intro to the marvellously pompous synthesiser work, to the band moving in formation to the front of the stage.
They then rocked out with ‘Rockin The Paradise’, Lawrence coming down from above Todd Sucherman’s drumkit to lead the chorus out front in a circus ringmaster’s hat, but the crowning glory was a rare chance to hear perhaps my all time favourite in ‘Suite Madame Blue’ with its epic changes of tempo, and those harmonies singing the ‘America’ refrain.
Any momentum lost by taking a 20 minute break was swiftly restored when they opened the set with what I think of the two guitarists respective trademark songs. JY looked youthful for his 69 years as he snarled out the lyrics to ‘Miss America’ – no longer so much the incongruous rocker in the set.
Tommy then told the story of his audition for the band before ‘Crystal Ball’ which again had so much to appreciate – the moment when the synth and guitar solos lead back into the pre-chorus bridge always gets me going and on this occasion there was an acoustic outro.
A lengthy piano intro from Lawrence then led into perhaps the most welcome surprise of the night- ‘Pieces Of Eight’ with more of those great harmonies, before Tommy took control to lead the handclaps and singalongs during ‘Too Much Time On My Hands’.
It was then time for Lawrence to return to the spotlight, first with instrumental snippets of ‘State Street Sadie’ and from the new album ‘Khedive’, then orchestrating singalongs to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. The latter got a mixed reception given the antipathy to Oasis in much of the more traditional rock world, but I was just relieved he hadn’t thought ‘Coldplay, there’s a stadium selling British band’!
These were though just the teaser for the intro to ‘Come Sail Away’ for which Chuck was brought back and which summed up both Styx’s majestic pomp and the stage energy of the current line up perfectly.
There was one final surprise for the encore: another of Dennis De Young’s kitsch songs that the current line-up refused to play for years was ‘Mr Roboto’ but they recently relented and with Lawrence ably filling his shoes and those harmonies precise on the chorus, it was surprisingly strong and went down a treat.
In more familiar and rocking fashion, ‘Renegade’ closed the set, Chuck making a final appearance and the band charging around the stage, though I was pleased it is no longer dragged out as long as it was a few years ago.
At this stage in their career it would be easy for Styx to phone it in or at least conserve their energy. Their refusal to do so and the way they attack their distinguished catalogue with such joy and fresh vigour, allied to the sense of occasion, made this without doubt one of the gigs of the year.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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