Concert Review: A Fireball Performance from Styx at the MGM Music Hall

By Jason M. Rubin

I am happy to report that Styx 2023 is a powerhouse outfit, wielding the most exciting aspects of progressive rock with radio-friendly hooks, riffs, and rhythms that set it apart from many of its peers.

Styx on tour — lead guitarists James Young and Tommy Shaw are as potent as ever. Photo: courtesy of the artist

By this point in time, every classic rock band from the 1970s that is still around in one form or another has lost and replaced original members, usually to the detriment of the band’s sound and legitimacy. It’s not often that a band from that decade is more powerful and exciting in the 2020s than when it first came onto the scene. Styx is one such band.

They have lost two key founding members over the years: keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter Dennis DeYoung, and drummer John Panozzo, whose bass-playing brother Chuck has been on and off over the years, and currently shares duties with Ricky Phillips, who joined in 2003. But each was replaced with better talent: Lawrence Gowan, a charismatic keys master who emerged during the neo-progressive rock movement of the mid-’80s with a series of solo albums that went unnoticed in America; and Todd Sucherman, one of the few rock drummers today with the technique, energy, and sheer talent to step into the shoes left empty by the death of Rush’s Neil Peart three years ago (Gavin Harrison is another). Sucherman went to Berklee for a year, then did sessions and was briefly part of Brian Wilson’s band (his wife, Taylor Mills, was a singer in the group at that time).

Gowan and Sucherman became members of Styx in 1999 and 1995, respectively. With their skill and theatricality, they help make Styx vital and relevant again. Playing a two-set (plus encore), 22-song show at MGM Music Hall on May 12, the entire band — led by longtime members Tommy Shaw and James Young, both lead guitarists — was a fireball from start to finish. Though the band has released a couple of new albums in the last few years, the setlist was wisely geared toward their classic period, with enough new songs to make it clear they are still a legitimate working band — creating decent original material with contributions from all current members — and not just one playing jukebox sets at summer music festivals.

Shaw and Young (known as JY) are as potent as ever on guitar, trading leads with skill and enthusiasm. Shaw also deftly played acoustic guitar. Though Gowan, in contrast with the dressings of progressive rock, had an arsenal of just one keyboard, he coaxed many cool sounds and impressive solos from it. That his instrument revolved on a pole was odd, but the arrangement suited his animated stage style. Sucherman, playing a large kit, did not get any solos, yet he was allowed to go crazy at the ends of a few songs, showcasing his dexterity and speed.

Vocally the band is perhaps at its most impressive. Shaw’s voice, originally a bit thin and high, is strong and sweet. Gowan’s lead vocals sounded exactly like DeYoung. JY sings some leads but mostly contributes to the tight vocal harmonies.

The crowd rabidly cheered during a number of highlight songs from the classic era, including “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” “The Grand Illusion,” “Crystal Ball,” “Rockin’ the Paradise,” “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” and “Come Sail Away.” The band’s light show was fun and flashy, never overtaking the music but setting a festive tone all its own. The two-song encore set comprised “Mr. Roboto” and “Renegade,” spotlighting Gowan and Shaw, respectively.

I last saw Styx in 1981 on the Paradise Theater tour. It was, as the album title suggested, highly theatrical. But DeYoung’s penchant for big concepts and soft ballads like “Babe” soon met with resistance from the rest of the group, which wanted to rock. Styx became less relevant to me and many other fans, and eventually went on hiatus. For years I resisted checking in to see what they were up to. I am happy to report that Styx 2023 is a powerhouse outfit, wielding the most exciting aspects of progressive rock with radio-friendly hooks, riffs, and rhythms that set it apart from many of its peers. A number of songs were sing-alongs, the knowing crowd happily shouting out each word. I’m already looking forward to their next trip to Boston.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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