The Grand Illusion / Pieces Of Eight Live (DVD)
Eagle Vision, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/04/2012
Oh, Styx. What am I gonna do with you?
What is anyone to do with a band that wears the label of “arena rock” like a badge of honor, strutting around like legends in their own mind 35 years after the somewhat modest high point of their career? I really want to believe these guys are in on the joke, though, that they laugh in the mirror when they realize how lucky they are to enjoy the level of success that they still do today.
Now in its fifth decade of existence (!), Styx at this point includes one full-time and one part-time original member. The sole remaining full-timer is James “JY” Young, guitarist-vocalist and the only man alive who could compete with founding keyboard player and singer-songwriter Dennis DeYoung in the department of over-the-top bombast. The part-timer is original bassist Chuck Panozzo, whose health issues limit him to four or five songs a night when he does sit in, as here. The rest of the lineup consists of longtime guitarist-vocalist Tommy Shaw, DeYoung soundalike Lawrence Gowan on keys and vocals, bassist/third guitarist Ricky Phillips and drummer Todd Sucherman.
For their 2010 tour, Styx decided to modify their normal setlist only a bit by playing their 1977-78 albums The Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight in their entirety, and to film their November 9 date at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis for this DVD. This makes some sense—these two albums were the band’s acknowledged commercial and creative apex—but it does present some issues when it comes to pacing the show. This becomes apparent right away, when the first four numbers include three of the best songs in Styx’s entire catalog: “The Grand Illusion,” “Fooling Yourself,” and what became their trademark song, the lighter-snapping #8 AOR hit “Come Sail Away.” Either “Grand” or “Sail” would make a natural late-show highlight on a normal night, and indeed, the boys give the latter a full-on third-encore treatment with heavy vamping and an extended, multiple-crescendo finish… and then they’re a quarter of the way through their set.
Young’s particularly aggro brand of arena-schlock is spotlighted on “Superstars” and “Miss America,” the latter an especially disjointed, surrealistic train wreck. More interesting is when Shaw shares an anecdote ahead of “Man In The Wilderness” about how he was inspired by the music of Kansas—with whom Styx toured in 1976—to write this song, which makes perfect sense since it sounds like it fell off the back bumper of Leftoverture. As Grand Illusion wraps up, penultimate power ballad “Castle Walls” provides a moment of unintentional hilarity when the camera catches Gowan looking bored enough to fall asleep during the supremely overcooked instrumental middle section, wherein he is called upon to play the same sequence of notes for two minutes straight.
Pieces Of Eight kicks off with Young’s mortifying “Great White Hope,” helping to explain why some of these songs haven’t been played in public in decades, if at all. I thought it couldn’t get any worse, and then “I’m OK” arrived—a song that would make any self-respecting cable-TV self-help guru double over and slap his thighs. Oh dear, what’s that smell coming out of my speakers?
“Sing For The Day” tries to clean up the mess by featuring Shaw’s hippie-folk-pop stylings on acoustic guitar—he really is a talented player and singer—but the song is among the most twee they’ve ever recorded. Next up, the space-rock stylings of instrumental “The Message” add a smidgen of prog cred to its otherwise embarrassing suite-mate, the misbegotten Tolkien homage “Lords Of The Ring.” Put it this way: “Come Sail Away” is to “Stairway To Heaven” as “Lords Of The Ring” is to “Ramble On.” Capeesh?
“Blue Collar Man” is one of the five or so Styx songs I actually own at this point. The propulsive urgency has always been there; if only it wasn’t undercut by the cringe-worthy lyrics. I confess I’ve always had a soft spot for “Queen Of Spades,” thanks to untold hours in college spent playing cutthroat games of Hearts. It ain’t rocket science, but it’s a fun enough ride to take again. “Renegade” follows on its heels, helping with the overall pacing by delivering a one-two-three punch ahead of the quieter closing duo. As with “Blue Collar,” the music definitely tops the lyric, but there’s at least some adventurousness in the rather unique Western/AOR mindmeld the song attempts.
The screechy, showtoon-ish “Pieces Of Eight” goes by just quickly enough, bringing us to the closing, atmospheric instrumental “Aku-Aku,” a track the guys ultimately decided they should play exactly like on the record, meaning at the end of the last and also most subdued song of the night they do a steady, live fadeout. A bizarre choice that works surprisingly well, as the crowd’s applause swells to meet and then overwhelm the fade.
In all honesty, I fully expected to loathe this cheese-fest, and did laugh time after time at the hoary arena-rock clichés these guys continue to trot out in their 60s—the three- and four-strong chorus lines of guitar players, the rotating keyboard rig, the double-necked guitars, the standing-on-the-keyboard-pumping-your-fist move, the self-congratulatory graphics.
The thing is, though, every last one of the above gimmicks feels like it was made for (if not by) Styx itself, a band that lives and breathes and sweats and belches empty bombast like nothing could be more natural and desirable. Art, this isn’t. But entertainment? For a certain fan of a certain age and certain musical tastes? I really didn’t expect to arrive here, but—yeah, I guess I can kinda see it.
Count your blessings, gentlemen. And when you’re done, count ’em again.