Styx – The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Live (2012)

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At the moment of Styx’s earliest breakout successes, as it achieved these first- and second-ever triple platinum-selling albums, the band was already starting to go its separate ways.

1977’s Grand Illusion was the first to fully spotlight the trademark elements of both Dennis DeYoung and relative newcomer Tommy Shaw, and already you could see where Styx would eventually come to a fork in the proverbial road musically.

Tracks like “Miss America” were brawny, six-string rockers — it still sounds like a clinched fist of bravado on this new concert film from Eagle Vision — while “Fooling Yourself,” though it shied away from the concept with its high harmonies and acoustic guitar, amounted to a kind of nascent arena rock. Yet you also had the title track and the opening stanzas of “Come Sail Away,” Styx’s second Top 10 hit, which became showcases for DeYoung’s preening Broadway affectations. At the time, this seemed like the kind of creative tension that might keep the band working at a high level. In truth, the center could not hold.

But, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Next would come a concept album in 1978’s Pieces of Eight that, whatever its conceptual pretensions, only underscored the widening gap between the camp now led by Shaw and original co-founding guitarist James “J.Y.” Young on one side, and DeYoung on the other. You’ve got Shaw fighting against “impossible odds” as the title character in “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” while DeYoung saunters about in “Lords of the Ring,” writing: “And now the message is clear/For I became a lord this year.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: There’s a world-weary melancholy to Styx’s 2011 track “Difference in the World” that didn’t exist in Tommy Shaw’s “Renegade” days. It’s a rousing and complex return to form.]

Pieces of Eight was an album more in keeping, on its surface, with earlier progressive-rock excursions in 1973-74 like The Serpent Is Rising and Man of Miracles, but there’s no going back there. The addition of Shaw, a hard-rocking everyman, before 1976’s Crystal Ball had forever shifted the band’s dynamic toward Young’s clear penchant for straight-ahead rock. Of course, it would take the disastrously overwrought robot operetta Kilroy Was Here in 1983 to finally tear the band at its ever-deepening fissures, but you can hear the first cracks forming on these two albums.

Fast forward almost 25 years, and DeYoung is long gone. In his place is an amiable sound-alike in Lawrence Gowan who has all of the vocal chops, but apparently a much better working relationship within the band dynamic. He’s been with Styx since 1999, becoming part of the longest-running lineup in the group’s lengthy history.

Gowan stays well out of Young and Shaw’s way, and sounds enough like DeYoung to keep things moving on The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Live — but not so much that it feels like rote memorization. And when he concludes DeYoung’s familiar solo moment to begin “Come Sail Away,” it’s striking how easily Gowan rejoins the rest of the band — so easy is their relationship, and so different is his presence. (Even now, it’s hard not to picture DeYoung in the late 1970s, wearing a high-waisted white suit and no shirt, hands on his hips, enunciating every … single … word like seasoned stage performer.) Gowan suddenly climbs atop his keyboard, and it fits perfectly with both the attitude and the approach that Young and Shaw have always favored. That is to say: Total rock stars. They, of course, begin sawing away on their guitars, and the crowd — as expected — comes alive. But, and this is important, so do Shaw and Young. Joy shoots out of not just their fingers, but their faces.

It’s their band now, and they’re doing it their way.

A deluxe souvenir from the first-time Styx ever performed these two seminal 1970s albums in their entirety on stage, this DVD/CD/Bluray package is being released today, January 31, 2012. The concert, recorded in 2010 at Memphis, features legacy members James “J.Y.” Young, Tommy Shaw and Chuck Panozzo along with drummer Todd Sucherman (who joined in 1995), singer Lawrence Gowan (in Styx since 1999), and bassist Ricky Phillips (a member since 2003). The set starts with Grand Illusion, which became the band’s first triple-platinum album on the strength of the Top 10 hit “Come Sail Away” and “Fooling Yourself,” a Top 30 charter. Next comes the follow up, Pieces of Eight, which likewise went triple platinum as Styx returned to its prog-rock roots. The “Putting on the Show” bonus feature includes interviews with the crew members on putting together this complex event.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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