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Styx made some long-lasting friends in Ohio ten years ago, when the multi-platinum band teamed up with Cleveland’s Contemporary Youth Orchestra at Blossom Music Center for a symphonic-rock spectacle.  The official DVD of that historic 2006 event, One With Everything, was lauded by fans—and the high profile partnership occasioned future opportunities for Conductor Liza Grossman and her talented teens to collaborate with other rock legends (Pat Benatar, Graham Nash, Melissa Etheridge) for similar project.

The Chicago-based outfit displayed equal precision and passion when it returned to the Buckeye State last Thursday (Nov. 9) for a decidedly galactic gig at the Hard Rock in Northfield.  There—before Maestro Grossman another capacity crowd—bandleader guitarists James “J.Y.” Young and Tommy Shaw dazzled with a two-hour showcase that shuffled vintage Styx songs with imaginative material from their new space-themed  studio album, The Mission.

Striding into the spotlight to the album’s “Overture,” main men Shaw and Young engaged primary ignition with the grinding new “Gone Gone Gone” and frantic Pieces of Eight (1978) foray “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights).”  Keyboardist Lawrence Gowan basted the anti-consumerism concept track “The Grand Illusion” with lush synth chords and nailed lead vocals on “Lady” (the night’s oldest entry, from 1973’s Styx II).

Mission missive “Radio Silence” buttressed beautifully with Equinox (1975) opener “Light Up.” 

“In the old days we held up lighters,” said Young (after joking about the health pitfalls of aging rockers). 

“But the modern-day equivalent is the cell phone.  So hold ‘em up!”

Shaw reminisced about his first days with the band before jangling away on the semi-acoustic “Crystal Ball” (1976), then passed the torch back to the huskier-voiced Young for maniacal fame farce “Miss America” (1977).

Accompanied by ace percussionist Todd Sucherman (Brian Wilson, Peter Cetera) and bassist Ricky Phillips (Babys, Bad English), the quintet then ventured off-script for a touching cover of Tom Petty classic “Free Falling.”

Shaw said the tribute was “Something from our souls that we just have to get out.”

The audience picked up Petty’s memorable Full Moon Fever chorus without prompt…and joined in later Styx sing-alongs, as well.

Young and Shaw juggled guitars all night long, with the former favoring his custom green Strat and the latter alternating between a Gibson Les Paul and a twelve-string acoustic.  Phillips seemed to change basses every other tune—but he attacked each four (and five)-string instrument with equal ferocity.  Meanwhile, Gowan gob-smacked onlookers by executing backwards and inverted keyboard parts on his pivoting platform.

It was hard to believe this band’s been around for nearly half a century, given the enthusiasm and virtuosity on display.  Everyone appeared to be having a genuinely fun time, no matter if this was Styx’s hundredth show or ten-thousandth. 

The original Styx lineup soared to superstardom in the ‘70s and ‘80s on the strength of similarly prog-tinged efforts like Equinox, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone, and Paradise Theater.  The group—formed in the late ‘60s by brothers John and Chuck Panozzo—enjoyed a steady string of hits (“Best of Times,” “Lady,” “Too Much Time on My Hands”) before creative squabbles hastened vocalist Dennis DeYoung’s departure. 

Shaw moonlighted in super-group Damn Yankees (with Jack Blades and Ted Nugent) in the ‘90s, scoring an MTV smash with “High Enough.” The prodigal guitar hero came home after John Panozzo passed away (and brother Chuck got sick) to help Young remodel Styx for the 21st century (Return to Paradise, Brave New World):  Kitschy pop fare like “Mr. Roboto” was nudged from the live repertoire in favor of the guitar-driven Styx epics and anthems of yore, like “Renegade.”   

DeYoung came back for a spell, too…but quit again. Sucherman  took over on drums.  Phillips was recruited to replace semi-retired Chuck on bass, while charismatic Canadian popstar Gowan became the group’s new keyboardist and tenor.  2003’s Cyclorama ushered Styx into the millennium, while covers disc Big Bang Theory showcased the guys’ ability to put their own stamp on Beatles, Hendrix, and Jethro Tull classics. 

The road is where Styx earns its bread and butter today: The 45-year old band has spent the better part of the last decade headlining hundreds of shows a year…and hundreds more splitting summertime bills with their buds in Journey, REO Speedwagon, and .38 Special.  They’re busy dudes.

That makes The Mission—the band’s first original studio set in nearly fifteen years—even more special.  The energetic “Outpost” was another magnificent, Mars-centric entry from the new disc.

But there are still enough touchstones to tie this interstellar outfit to their glittery arena-rock past.  Halfway through the show, they introduced one of them—in the person of Chuck Panozzo.

“Two brothers started this band,” reported Shaw. 

“They went down in the basement and said, ‘We have guitars and drums, so let’s start a band!’  Here’s Charles Panozzo, our original bassist!”

Phillips noodled on a monstrous double-neck guitar while guest musician Panozzo (in a sparkly camouflage blazer) synched in with Sucherman on “Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man).”  Gowan pedal-pointed the song’s signature riff on keys while Shaw and Young conspired on crunchy guitar leads.

Next—on the pulsating “Too Much Time on My Hands”—Shaw demonstrated a keen awareness of his surroundings by changing up the lyrics to suit the city:

“Is it any wonder I’m not the Mayor of Northfield?” he quipped, never quite losing his place on guitar.

A synth solo by Gowan allowed his cohorts to take a short break—and allowed fans to participate in a little call-and-response vocals.  Starting with the elegant, classically-seasoned “Khedive” (from The Mission), Gowan truly dazzled.  His interpretations of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen) and “Golden Slumbers” (Beatles) were just icing on the keyboard cake.

“As you can probably tell, we’re building a classic rock pyramid!” he said.

Gowan soon scaled to the promontory of said pyramid, vis-à-vis Grand Illusion masterpiece “Come Sail Away,” which brought fans to their feet and had the house shaking.  Encore numbers “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Renegade” reminded anybody who still hadn’t quite got the idea that these dudes can still capture the old magic and blast it back into the world, confetti canons and all.