January 17, 2017
Grove of Anaheim
Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Maria Huizinga
If you read my reviews with any regularity, you probably assume I attend a lot of concerts. And your assumption would be correct. There is, however, a caveat: the danger of seeing the same artists so many times, the line begins to blur and you can’t tell one show from the next. This becomes an especially sticky situation with groups that tour relentlessly and resist the idea of releasing new music.
Indeed, the game has changed to the point that making a record is a liability and playing out live is a necessity. I could cite dozens of performers who have made the adjustment; for purposes of brevity and focus, let’s go with Styx. Here’s a band that hasn't released a new record in over a decade, but they’re booked solid for the next couple years, playing the hits that people love. They come to Southern California every few months, so missing a show here and there isn't a big deal. Frankly, their act hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last few years. Fortunately, when they came to the Grove of Anaheim to begin 2017, I went and was pleasantly surprised.
Surely, the members of Styx themselves are likely looking for ways to keep things fresh and lively. To their credit, they don’t appear to be going through the motions at their concerts; instead, each performance brings out a high, sincere level of excitement and enthusiasm from each player. I was happy to see them play two of their biggest albums — The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight — in their entirety in 2010.
For 2017, the band began the year by teaming up with former Eagles guitarist Don Felder for a run of shows playfully coined Renegades in the Fast Lane in Las Vegas. On paper, it doesn’t sound like much of a stretch because Felder has toured with Styx before. The twist this time was making Styx Felder’s pick-up band — a fun and alluring challenge for the musicians, a novel and enticing treat for the audience.
Felder wasn’t listed on the bill for the Grove show, and he didn’t appear with the band two nights before at the first-post Vegas gig of the year in Scottsdale, Arizona. But rumors abounded, an insider gave me the lowdown, and after Styx guitarist and singer Tommy Shaw said how much fun they’d had in Vegas, Felder stepped out of the shadows and onto the stage. As expected, a collective gasp erupted and multiple voices piped in on the chorus of “Take It Easy.”
Styx bassist Ricky Phillips told me the week before that the band’s vocal prowess, attention to detail, and desire to step out of their hit-filled comfort zone was behind their participation on what many consider some of the most sacred and iconic songs in rock and roll. A valiant “Seven Bridges Road” embraced a set of sweet harmony stacks that rivaled even those of the Eagles. Styx definitely did their homework.
Before Felder’s surprise mid-set, four-song appearance, the band was doing an ample job warming up the faithful with a healthy dose of their most potent material: “The Grand Illusion,” the consummate opener, followed by obligatory turns at “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).” Keyboardist and vocalist Lawrence Gowan, his locks stylishly coiffed for wind-tunnel-tested durability, asserted his spot of 18 years by intoning the first Styx hit from 1973 “Lady” with bravado and swagger.
After a spirited run at “Light Up” (which prompted the audience to “light up” their cell phones), Shaw and Gowan made a left turn and offered up a passionate, acoustic take of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The poignancy of this tribute to the late Canadian singer-songwriter likely hit home with Gowan, a celebrated Canadian musician in his own right. Later in the evening, the keyboard-spinning Gowan would entertain the troops with a heartfelt medley of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers,” just before sawing off a chunk of “Come Sail Away” to the delight of the sold-out Grove.
Guitarist James "JY" Young, the band’s sole original member (original bassist Chuck Panozzo sat in for a few numbers), was as entertaining as ever during his in-between song quips (he introduced “Lady” as the band’s hit during the Gerald Ford presidency). His song “Miss America,” a set staple, remains one of the band’s heaviest tunes and never seems to get old.
For the four-song encore, Felder returned to the fold for two more Eagles songs. “Life In The Fast Lane” highlighted stellar guitar work from Felder, as well as Shaw and Young. Once the former Eagles guitarist walked out with his white double-neck Gibson EDS-1275, everyone pretty much figured out that “Hotel California” was next. Felder and Shaw traded verses and licks during the famous guitar coda to bring the Grammy-winning song to a rousing close.
Felder stuck around for harmonies and more crunching guitar exchanges during “Rockin' the Paradise” and the set’s closer “Renegade.” Styx and Felder took their bows to a standing ovation. Despite the frequency of Styx shows in these parts, I have to admit the Grove of Anaheim show was one for the books. Both Shaw and Gowan mentioned how much they like being in California and playing the venue. Perhaps there’s more to the ubiquitous nature of Styx than meets the eye. I will definitely consider seeing what other bags of tricks they dig out when they come back to town.