It's been awhile since I've done a review of any Styx-related show. I've seen quite a few in the past, oh, 7 years! It's about time I finally started formally reviewing shows, and this particular one is a good choice for a lot of reasons. The last time I saw the rock show Dennis does was in 2008 (August 29, 2008 at a festival in Naperville, IL). I saw the acoustic show with Glen and Jeff Watson in NYC in 2009, but that was a very different configuration.
The show at the Twin Rivers Event Center was the rock show, but not like any most of us who have seen Dennis in the past 10 years have witnessed. Why? Read on ...
OK, let's get this out of the way now. Some of the folks around the 'net are abuzz with the changes that Dennis made recently to his touring band and what it meant to the setlist (which is covered in the next few sections). In a nutshell, DDY's basically blown it up. Your new touring band is:
Dennis DeYoung - lead vocals and keyboards
Suzanne DeYoung - backing vocals
John Blausucci - keyboards and vocals
Jimmy Leahey - guitar and vocals
August Zadra - guitar and lead vocals
Greg Carter - bass
Tom Sharpe - drums
Gone: Hank Horton (bass), Tom Dziallo (guitar), and Kate Minan (backing vocals). Hank is on tour with the 101 Dalmations musical from what I heard, and it remains to be seen if he'll be back. Tom has been with DDY since the 80s, so that one is the biggest shocker to some. He wasn't at the acoustic show, and looking back maybe it was telling. I don't want to read too much into things. Unfortunately, long time drummer Kyle Woodring passed away fairly recently (although Tom Sharpe had already been doing some dates with Dennis since Kyle was doing the pit for Jersey Boys in Chicago; Tom was on drums at the Naperville show I saw in 2008), so whether or not he would have still been in is irrelevant. I was critical of some of Kyle's drumming at times, but he was a good fit for Dennis' band. RIP Kyle.
So you may be asking yourself this question: why do three personnel changes matter? Look at the setlist:
Lady (with Piano intro played by Dennis)
Blue Collar Man (with organ intro played by Dennis)
Don't Let It End
Too Much Time On My Hands
One Hundred Years From Now
Rockin' the Paradise (with extended guitar solos)
Babe (DDY played keyboard intro)
Suite Madame Blue
The Best of Times/A.D. 1958/In The End (Beatles)
Come Sail Away
The show started around 8:10 PM and finished close to 10PM. It's one of the longer rock shows I've seen Dennis do in a long time.
NOTE: The songs between "Light Up" and "Mr. Roboto" may not be in order; I lost my pen, am going by memory, and IBM did not sponsor me, so no tale of the tape. (How many of you even get that reference?)
Anyway, you read that right boys and girls - three songs originally sung by one Mr. Tommy Shaw are now in Dennis' show. Blasphemy to some, I'm sure. It's had the denizens of the Styx forum over at MelodicRock.com
bickering back and forth and asking, "So does Dennis need Styx and Tommy Shaw songs to survive?" My answer to that: nyet, no, uh uh, sorry. Dennis has been solo now for 10 years and quite frankly, if he needed to, he would have done this long ago. So all you conspiracy theorists and lovers of the Grassy Knoll can relax.
That begs the follow up question: why now? That's a good question and one I do not have an answer for. I have my own specuation (some ideas I've posted over at MR.com; go there if you want to see) and since there's not an official press release/statement/mea culpa (as it would need to be for some ...) from Dennis or his management on the band or set changes, it lets those who want to see things through rose colored glasses on either side come up with some very skewed perceptions.
Here's the thing: Dennis is 63 years old. He still sings all of his songs in the original key
(hell, even Journey's replacement doesn't do that all the time and he's 20 years younger!). He plays what people want to hear. It's been 11 years going back to the CMN gig - his last with Styx - that he played any of the Tommy Shaw songs in full for an audience. I'd say he's entitled to have some fun and play songs he wants which were popular that he was a part of making big. If Styx can do Dennis' songs, why can't he do songs he helped make big? Sure, you can cry blasphemy, but how is it any different than Gowan doing Dennis tunes? The original guy isn't singing it, so you get over it or you don't. I think I can safely say that as I have paid to see both Dennis and Styx over the years and have been critical of both "sides" for various reasons over the years. You at least have options of seeing what lineup - or both should you be inclined - you want. Dennis adding the Tommy tunes makes that decision easier in the sense if you only like Dennis, you get some of the other Styx hits now.
Some have asked what the Styx reaction to this change is, or what it will/should be. Honestly, they shouldn't have any reaction.
They should do what they do, and if it works, continue doing it. Dennis doing three Tommy songs (and I would put money on "Fooling Yourself" being added at some point; that synth work is some of DDY's most recognizable work) didn't stop the Earth from rotating, so why should they care? Dennis has a history of changing his lineups (multiple keyboard players, Glen being in and out from time to time, adding Jimmy, etc.), so this is really Dennis continually tweaking his show as he has been doing for 10 years.
Enough of that. How was the damn show with Dennis now doing Tommy songs?
First, let me get this out of the way: the sound was absolutely abysmal. I was in Section 104 directly facing the stage. It was just behind the mixing desk, so it should have been great. The venue is basically a multipurpose room that depending on the configuration can hold up to 3000 people. I'd say concert seating was about half of that, and close to sold out or sold out. It could have been more seats, but I don't know. So being a multipurpose venue, it was not optimized for sound and it showed. I'd be surprised if the best sound engineer could get good sound in there. Not only was the mix muddy, but I haven't heard a drum kit and especially a snare drum sound that bad in a long, long time. As a musician, it bothered me. I tried not to let it color my view of the show, but it certainly detracted from the experience
What is the show now missing? A lot of the classical flourishes it once had. It's also missing a few deeper cuts (DDY had been known to rotate some songs in and out like "Pieces of Eight" and "Castle Walls"). He's down to two solo songs. He dropped Hunchback songs awhile back, and hasn't played "Summertime" in almost 10 years. You know what? It doesn't matter. The crowd ate the new changes up. That's what matters; most of the people showing up to Dennis (or Styx shows for that matter) are there for nostalgia and songs they know. He gave them that. The three songs which got the best crowd reactions: "Renegade", "The Best of Times", and of course, "Come Sail Away". You read that right: "Renegade" was one of them. In fact, it got the crowd to their feet and some rushed the stage. It was a sight to behold.
One thing the show has gained: DDY doing more keys. He's been slowly getting back to it (although in 2008 when I saw him, he didn't do any). Whatever's given him the playing bug, I'm all for it. He had the Motif and a Nord. He did the standard piano intro he classically used to do at Styx shows before "Lady", short solo organ piece before "Blue Collar Man", the solo in "Come Sail Away", and other stuff all throughout the show. Before "Babe" he wasn't sure he was going to/wanted to play the intro, but he did. Unscripted moments at Dennis shows seem to be more of a regular thing based on the unplugged show last year.
I was saying this to a friend today: basically, you got the set Styx played (give or take) for years and stopped playing after 1997. I think that's why it was a shock to my system, because it was like revisiting an old friend. It left me a bit puzzled at first, to be honest. Three songs shouldn't make a big difference, but it was huge. Dennis has some rockers like "Rockin' the Paradise" and "Grand Illusion", but let's call a spade a spade: Dennis' show has always been good to great (depending on configuration and setlist), but more midtempo than rocking. It's what people knock him for (and is an unfair criticism in my opinion; Dennis can rock just fine). Songs like "Private Jones" (excellent live, I hope he brings it back) and "One Hundred Years From Now" - also rockers - are new, and unfamiliar, so you can't do too many of those without bio and drink breaks aplenty. Many Styx songs like "Come Sail Away" and "Suite Madame Blue" rock just fine, but build to it. The one thing the classic Styx setlist had was a good balance of rockers, midtempo tunes, and ballads. Adding the TS added a balance to Dennis' set which made it a much stronger show. Set pieces and deep cuts like "Castle Walls" and "Pieces of Eight" are great and I don't want to see Dennis abandon them, but I think he's got more flexibility now than he ever has live.
The person singing Tommy Shaw's songs is August. he's quite good. His voice is pretty close to 70s Tommy. I did a quick search, and learned that he did the Tommy Shaw stuff in a Styx tribute band Grand Illusions in Southern California. He was also in a Boston tribute band called Smokin' and a Journey tribute as well (video for the Journey stuff).Tommy's voice now has a bit more grit and maturity to it which I like (although last time I saw Styx, he was not in his best voice and didn't hit some notes in songs like "Too Much Time On My Hands"; he sounded great on the Shaw Blades tour, though, so I probably saw an off night). August had only one near-miss in the lyrics department. He did have some trouble with his amp or guitar at the start of the show. His solos seemed to be a hybrid of the live and studio versions - more studio than live - and a few riffs you expect to hear you didn't. Not a criticism, just an observation. The only really egregious and funny moment was at the end of "Come Sail Away" where he didn't quite get the solo and was a bit off. Tommy himself has said he has had problems in the past since it's in C, so it was ironic at least to me. History can repeat itself.
Unfortunately, from a music perspective, the biggest problem last night was the guitar work. Maybe it was the bad sound in the venue, but there were times where things were off. Great example: "Desert Moon". That was the one you missed Tommy D, and it seemed like Jimmy did his best, but there a few not-so-stellar moments in that. I think what it boils down to is that the lineup, especially Jimmy and August, neet time to gel a bit more by playing together. They've done a handful of shows with arguably minimal rehearsal time. Jimmy has been with Dennis for awhile and it's clear they're quite comfortable with each other, but add a new second guitarist and some new duties like "Desert Moon", it's going to take some time to adjust. I'll give them a bit of a pass for some of what went on last night. I only probably noticed because I know the tunes inside and out. 99% of the people didn't notice or could care less.
After that paragraph, you'd think the guitars were bad all night; not true. They were fine more than they were off. New to the set as well (at least I don't remember it from 2008) was an extended guitar jam at the end of "Rockin' the Paradise", not unlike what Styx used to do at the end of songs like "22 Years" and I believe "Midnight Ride" (been awhile since I listened to old live shows). Dennis' shows have been more straightforward in the past and did not have a lot of improv room. Another nice surprise.
A word about Greg (hey, I'm a bass player ... it's unavoidable I'd ignore him): unlike Hank who was front and center, Greg is up on a riser by Tom Sharpe (too many Toms and Tommys to talk about!) just doing his thing. He's pretty good; like Hank, he played a 5-string (looked to be some variation of a Fender Jazz). Two criticisms and a big positive:
1. He stuck a lot on the low B string. Hank had better balance. All of the original Styx stuff was 4-string (well, until BNW anyway). I'd like to see him make the parts his own but not hang so low all the time. It's clearly not my bass chair and Greg can do what he wants, though, so this comment should be taken with a grain of salt.
2. His tone was uneven. I couldn't tell if it was the poor venue sound or the mix/his equipment. The low and mids were fine, but for example, when he went up to do those few bass riffs in "Desert Moon", I couldn't hear them. They were totally lost. I saw his fingers move, so they were being played.
3. Thank you for playing the bassline in "Blue Collar Man" right from what I could tell. I like Ricky's playing in Styx, but he does that song pretty much "straight" the entire way through. It's irked me every time I've seen Styx in the past few years (and this isn't my first time mentioning it). It's his choice, and he's the bass player in Styx, but I think itsounds wrong for the tune; it loses its feel. There are times where there is a bit of "bounce" with the dotted quarter/eighth notes Chuck played (i.e. like the part under the solo). Yes, it's nitpicky, but I'm glad you "got" it.
Funniest moment of the show? When a fan named Kevin shouted after "Rockin' the Paradise" to play "Music Time". Dennis handled it well.
Even with its shortcomings, I have to say it's one of the first rock shows from Styx or Dennis I've enjoyed from note one to the final one in a long time for all the right reasons. The band had a great time, the crowd loved it, and it was apparent. Even the bad sound couldn't kill a good time. The new band lineup combined with a rejuvinated Dennis was really nice to see.