If there’s one thing that can be said of Styx, the uber-popular multiplatinum-selling rock band born and bred in Chicago, it’s that they never give less than 100 percent during their live shows — even during the soundchecks. And it was quite evident the band was already firing on all cylinders during the soundcheck they did at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark on September 22, which commenced promptly at 5:09 p.m., less than 2½ hours before showtime later that evening.
Styx ultimately performed two full hour-long sets to an enthusiastic crowd at the NJPAC that night, comprised of both mega hits (“Renegade,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Come Sail Away”) and deep cuts (“Man in the Wilderness,” “Pieces of Eight,” “Snowblind”) alike.
The aforementioned soundcheck started with the always galvanizing set opener “The Grand Illusion,” with keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan leading the charge as guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw galloped up the riser steps located behind powerhouse drummer Todd Sucherman. Bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips anchored the beat as co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young took an incendiary solo at the lip of the stage on his green Stratocaster, a fairly recent addition to his guitar arsenal. There were fewer than 10 people in the hall at that time, but the band played on as if they were in front of a full house. It’s an admirable display of pre-gig gusto, especially considering Styx has averaged more than 100 live shows per year, every year, since 1999.
That’s not to say the band doesn’t have its fair share of moments of levity. Before running through one of Shaw’s signature tunes, “Crystal Ball,” Styx punctuated the end of “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” with a shuffle that could best be described as how a Vaudevillian lounge act wearing rumpled tuxedos might end every song they play. It’s somewhat of a signature song-coda wink/nudge maneuver during many a Styx soundcheck, in fact, but it’s also one you’d never hear during an actual show.
“Even when they fool around, they sound good,” observed original bassist Chuck Panozzo as he strode into the wings offstage on Gowan’s side after testing out his Fender bass on “Fooling Yourself,” one of the band’s biggest hits and perennial early-set crowd pleasers. (Panozzo, who lives in Florida and is in his third year of cancer remission, joins the band on the road whenever he can.)
“We love our New Jersey fans,” Styx guitarist/vocalist Shaw told Best of NJ in catering after the band had completed the hard-charging 35-minute soundcheck. “They’re among the most loyal fans we have, which we really appreciate. And I just love seeing so many familiar faces in the audience whenever we get to play here! Some of our most memorable shows in New Jersey have actually happened during the summer at the Garden State Arts Center. I still feel I have to call it that, even though it’s now the PNC Bank Arts Center,” Shaw added with a laugh after mentioning the popular outdoor Holmdel ampitheater Styx last performed at on July 25, 2015, while on tour with Tesla and Def Leppard.
James “JY” Young — a charter member of the band since it was founded in Chicago back in 1972 — has a theory as to why Styx remains such a popular draw in New Jersey. “The appeal we have in the Heartland of America translates to anything west of the Hudson,” the guitarist noted while lounging in his dressing room following the NJPAC show. “We have a much broader appeal as a live act these days, and this is the primetime for Styx — no doubt about it. I don’t know how many other acts could even book 100 shows a year like we do.”
Young also has fond memories of the last show he personally saw at the Meadowlands, the now-shuttered East Rutherford venue Styx sold out for three nights in August 1981 during the Paradise Theatre tour (back when it was known as the Brendan Byrne Arena). “The last time I attended a concert there was with Ricky Phillips — we went to see Van Halen, with Sammy Hagar on vocals [in 2004],” Young recalls. “As we were exiting the parking lot, some New Jersey resident yelled out to Ricky, ‘Hey, Diamond Dave!'” (In case you were wondering, that’s a reference to David Lee Roth, Van Halen’s original singer, who’s now back with the band and in the eighties, vaguely resembled Phillips.)
All six bandmembers of Styx were individually taken with the NJPAC’s stellar acoustics and its breathtaking interior design, which tour manager George Packer likened to the breadth and scope of Teatro alla Scala (a.k.a. La Scala), the fabled opera house in Milan. In terms of the NJPAC’s sonics, front-of-house engineer Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato (who’s responsible for mixing Styx’s live sound night in and night out on the road) said it was one of the best-sounding rooms she’s had the pleasure of working in this year to date.
Fifteen minutes before showtime, the band commenced its pre-show vocal warmup routine in Shaw’s dressing room, going over the key four-part vocal-harmony elements of songs like “Blue Collar Man” and “Rockin’ the Paradise.” They also put a slight twist on the end of their run-through of the chorus of “Renegade” by adding in some country twang as a nod to Marty Robbins’s 1959 hit, “El Paso” (again, something you won’t ever hear them do onstage).
When Shaw came offstage after the first set ended to towel off and change his shirt for part two, he was clearly galvanized by the NJPAC crowd’s response to that point, and he reiterated something he said onstage before the band went into “Too Much Time on My Hands,” the second song of the night. “It’s our first time in this beautiful, beautiful place — and it’s such a sweet room!” he said with a wide grin. Meanwhile, in the dressing room hallway, legendary concert promoter John Scher — who’s worked with the Rolling Stones, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, and who has booked Styx shows in the metropolitan area for decades — asked JY how he felt the band’s 2016 tour schedule was going. “After 44 years,” JY replied, “we’re still going strong.”
Truer words could not have been spoken. The second set was as just as strong as the first — if not stronger — and punctuated by the sweet, sweet sounds of “Lights” (a personal favorite from 1979’s Cornerstone). Another standout: Gowan and Shaw’s acoustic reading of “Space Oddity,” their touching homage to the late David Bowie, before the band brought the house down with the cosmic second-set closer “Come Sail Away” and the one-two punch of the energetic encore, “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Renegade.”
Before heading out to the band’s tour bus, Young pondered my final question. “Will we come back and play in New Jersey again?” he repeated aloud before giving a definitive, declarative response: “We shall.” And Styx’s ever-loyal New Jersey fans will be ready to come sail away right alongside them as soon as they do.
Mike Mettler (@MikeMettler), a.k.a. The SoundBard, is the weekly Audiophile columnist for Digital Trends, the music editor of Sound & Vision, and is currently writing the authorized biography of the band Styx. In his spare time, he dreams of owning a turquoise 1967 fastback Mustang, just like the one his parents owned while he was growing up. (This would mean cleaning out his garage, but that’s a Jersey resident’s conundrum for another time.)
Hero (Top) Feature Image: Jason Powell/Courtesy Styx