Sunday, December 9, 2018

Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx

I saw Styx this past summer at Jones Beach, playing with Tesla and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. (See my post about it from 7/1/18 at It wasn't the best show I ever saw -- Tesla didn't do much for me, Joan Jett was set up as the headliner, and struggled to stretch her eight-or-so hits into like an eighteen-song set, and the sound for Styx wasn't great -- it was pretty muddy. But I was glad I'd at least seen Styx, and gotten them off of my bucket list.

Then I started watching some of the more classic-rock-oriented channels on YouTube (the Grumpy Old Men, if you will), who had some pretty strong opinions about the band. The gist of the Styx drama is this - at some point a number of years back, the two guitarists, Tommy Shaw and J.Y. Young, essentially threw lead singer/songwriter/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung out of the band. (It's more complicated than that, but we don't need to go into it.) They've continued to tour over the years, but because they see themselves as raucous guitar guys, there are a few big Styx songs they've been leaving out of their setlists over the years, including "Mr. Roboto" and "Babe".

Now I've always been a casual fan of Styx. I've always owned a copy of The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, but I had no idea about any of this history. I did notice that when they came to Jones Beach two years ago, their setlist for the tour didn't include "Mr. Roboto", which was enough to make me pass on the show. (Well, that, and the fact they were touring with REO Speedwagon, who I wouldn't see if they were playing for free in my backyard.) But this year, due to intense fan pressure (and, if you can believe some of the stories, pressure from the promoters), Styx put "Mr. Roboto" back into their setlist, so I bought a ticket and went to see them.

Then I learned about this whole controversy. And the really interesting thing was, much like Yes, there was an alternate version of Styx also touring the country, billing itself as Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx. And just like the YouTube community seems to lean very heavily toward the ARW version of Yes over the Steve Howe/Alan White version, the consensus opinion seems to be that the Dennis DeYoung version of Styx is the better version (even though he's playing much smaller arenas). There's a lot of derision towards Shaw and Young for refusing to reunite with DeYoung, who wrote most of Styx's big hits. So when I learned that DeYoung was coming to the Tilles Center, I bought a ticket so I could go and see for myself.

A couple of things about Styx. I've always liked them, without necessarily loving them. There are two bands I always think about when I think about Styx. The first is Yes. I know it's a stretch, but for some reason (maybe because of their upbeat nature), I've always kind of seen Styx as America's answer to Yes. It's not a great answer -- Yes is by far the better band. (Compare Styx's best album, The Grand Illusion to the album most people would consider Yes's best, Close to Edge, and you see that Yes blows them out of the water. Grand Illusion is a fine album, but it does have some dead spots. Close to the Edge is a masterpiece from beginning to end.) But there's enough similarity of vibe for me to see Styx as Yes's lesser, shallower American cousin.

The other band I tend to associate with Styx (and this is probably a fairer comparison) is Kansas. They're both American, they're both prog-rock-oriented bands from the same time period, etc. Here again, I think Styx comes in second best, but it's closer. I think Kansas wins on the strength of two nearly perfect albums (Leftoverture and Point of Know Return), but at least in this battle, Styx gets some serious shots in. "Come Sail Away" is an absolute classic, "Mr. Roboto" is fun as hell, they've got a pair of seriously strong love ballads in "Lady" and "Babe", and a number of other top- or near-top echelon songs.

So anyway, with the YouTube hype ringing in my ears, I was looking forward to this show, especially as I'd been a little disappointed with the sound at the Jones Beach Styx concert earlier this year.

Now it wasn't the ideal day to see the show. Some family shenanigans had kept me up much later than I'd wanted to be up on Friday night. (Sometimes, I'm an experiment in sleep deprivation.) And unfortunately, the show ended up being on the same day as one of my early-Saturday-morning staff meetings for my job. (Somehow this always seems to happen -- I don't even want to count all of the Saturdays the staff meeting wound up on a day where I've had concert tickets for that night. And because I'm not an early morning person, getting up early and driving into Queens tends to knock me out for the rest of the day.) But I got home from the meeting and managed to grab a nap, so I was in relatively good shape for the show.

This was another solo show for me. Denise would rather have root canal than see Styx in either of their manifestations (unless maybe Eric Cartman was going to be doing a guest vocal on "Come Sail Away"). So I got to the Tilles Center and settled into my seat about twenty minutes before showtime all by my lonesome.

Being a rather portly gentleman, I always buy an aisle seat, and when I can, I often buy myself an extra seat so I'm comfortable for a show. On this occasion, though, the tickets were just a little too pricey (about 80 bucks) to buy an extra seat. And as luck would have it, right before the show started, a trio of concertgoers settled in next to me, and the fellow in the next seat was only slightly less large than myself. So I wasn't as comfortable as I like to be. And I'm sure he wasn't comfortable at all. (They were also beer drinkers, which is always fun, because it means that I'll have to keep getting up to let them out of the row every so often when it's time for a refill. Fun for the people seated behind us, also.)

I pretty much knew the setlist ahead of time, because DeYoung and his band have been doing the same one every night. Because the tour is celebrating the 40th Anniversary of The Grand Illusion, the show was scheduled for two sets. The first set was a beginning-to-end performance of The Grand Illusion album. The second was most of Styx's greatest hits from their other albums.

The lights went down, and DeYoung and his band hit the stage. A few facts about and initial impressions of DeYoung and the band: 1. DeYoung is in damned good shape for a 71-year-old man. He's trim, and quite active, and his voice is still in very good shape. 2. The band consisted of DeYoung and six other people. 3. One of the members of DeYoung's band is his wife Suzanne, who stood behind him as a backup singer. Now my seat was close enough to see the band pretty well, and my first thought was, "Hmm. Trophy wife." This is because as good as DeYoung looks, I thought she was twenty or so years younger. But no, it turns out they've been together 40 or 50 years, and she's a fine-looking 72 year old. (I'm not sure she's musically the most vital part of the band, though. I couldn't really hear her voice all night, except for a little bit on "Babe", and maybe for a little on "Renegade". She's kind of Laurie Partridge without the tambourine.) 3. Re/the two guitarists, August Zadra and Jimmy Leahey -- DeYoung has taken some kidding for getting two guys who look, and sound, a lot like Tommy Shaw and J.Y. Young for his band, which he bristled at a little during this show. I can see his point, but I can also see how you can't really avoid the comparison. 4. When he introduced the band, his drummer, Michael Morales, got some of the best applause of the night, simply for being a Long Islander, and for proudly wearing a New York Islanders jersey. A few yoyos tried to get a "Lets Go Rangers!" chant going in the background, but they were thoroughly drowned out.

Anyway, the show was pretty good, although I'd heard so much about how great a version of Styx this was that it was a little bit of letdown. DeYoung wore a boat captain's jacket for the performance, and was lively throughout. Unfortunately, he's also a little bit corny. He's funny at times, but he does a lot of Chaplinesque, physical humor, knocking his (very skinny) legs together, and physically leaning on the other musicians often while he pretends to play their instruments. There's an interview that Tommy Shaw and J.Y. Young did with Dan Rather that's up on YouTube that they've taken a lot of heat about, because when Rather asked them if they'd ever perform again with Dennis DeYoung, they indicated that they'd rather play for less money without him for the sake of their own mental health. Nothing against DeYoung, but I kind of get it. He's very manic, and I can see where he'd be annoying to work with day in and day out. (And yes, as a pretty annoying guy myself, I feel qualified to recognize another annoying guy.) Of course, he's been able to hold onto the same wife for decades without annoying her into leaving, but it's probably a chemistry thing. But I can understand how if Shaw and Young felt miserable working with him, they'd rather not do it again, even if it would make all of them a lot of money.

The setlist for the show was excellent. The only song that I wished they'd have played that they didn't was "Sing for the Day", but you can't have everything. DeYoung obviously had no problem playing "Mr. Roboto", or "Babe" for that matter, which was great. And they played solid versions of songs like "Come Sail Away", "Fooling Yourself" and "Lady".

At one of the deader points in the first set, the beerly trio got up for refills, and when they came back, they had rearranged themselves so the woman, who was the smallest of the trio, was sitting next to me. This was more comfortable. But at the intermission, when I found a whole bunch of open, cushioned pullout chairs that were unused in the back, I asked an usherette, and with her permission, moved into it. So for the second set, I was further back, but more comfortable. (And I'm sure my former row-mates were more comfortable as well).

From my seat further back, I could see that the house was about three-quarters full, maybe a little more, and that the crowd was loving it. Two of the college-age usherettes sat down in my section also, and they both seemed to be enjoying the show as well. One of them was obviously quite familiar with Styx's music, and was singing along and clapping away like crazy (although she was, sadly, just a little rhythm challenged. But at least she was having fun.) I felt that (perhaps due to DeYoung's personality), the show had a little bit of Vegas lounge feeling to it (which isn't necessarily the worst thing. I can enjoy a Vegas lounge show sometimes.)

So overall, I was entertained, and I enjoyed the show, although I don't feel it fully lived up the hype I heard about it from some of the YouTubers. It's a little less spectacular than the other Styx's show (DeYoung's replacement Lawrence Gowan does somersaults off of his keyboard, and there some pyrotechnics at their outdoor shows), but DeYoung and his band also work hard to be entertaining. If you ask me which is the better Styx, I'd say it's almost a tie. I have a vague notion that the rest of DeYoung's band lacks the charisma of Shaw, Jones and Gowan, although DeYoung does have (almost too much) charisma himself. DeYoung definitely wins out on setlist -- he's willing to do any song in Styx's catalog (and the current Styx band performed a lot of material off of their latest album, The Mission, which isn't the greatest album). So it's kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other. Both versions are decent representations of Styx. Neither version is as good a representation as it would be if DeYoung, Shaw and Jones performed together again, but that's probably never going to happen.

I felt that this show was worth my money, though, and if you're a Styx fan, it would be worth your time to see it if you get the chance.

You can find the full setlist at

I've got some tickets coming up for some more nostalgia-type concerts in the months to come, so I'll keep you informed.