BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
One of the more common sights of summer is the classic rock band of the ‘70s touching down in dozens of amphitheaters around the country and trotting out a reliable set list of hits.
Styx has proven itself among the most durable of the breed, partially because they know what their fans want to hear – “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade” and the just-turned-40 “Grand Illusion” – but mostly because their layered anthems still are, simply, solid rock songs with a theatrical flair.
Last summer, the band (guitarist/singer Tommy Shaw, guitarist/singer James “J.Y.” Young, keyboardist/singer Lawrence Gowan, drummer Todd Sucherman and bassist Ricky Phillips with sometimes-guest original bassist Chuck Panozzo) visited with 38 Special and Don Felder. They’ll return Sunday to Verizon Amphitheatre in Alpharetta for a stop on their “United We Rock” trek with Felder and REO Speedwagon.
There is also a heightened awareness to this tour, because in mid-June, Styx surprised fans with their first studio album since 2005, the gloriously lush concept album, “The Mission,” which they recorded over two years in Nashville, where Shaw lives with his wife, Jeanne.
Shaw called recently from the Oregon coast, where he and his wife were taking a brief break from the tour, to discuss the live show, the new album and plans for the fall.
Q: You’re back with REO Speedwagon this summer, which I assume is a comfortable place to be.
A: Kevin (Cronin) and I, we met when he was coming to Chicago to rejoin REO and I was going home after my audition with Styx. We both met at O’Hare (airport) and we’ve been good friends ever since. When 9/11 happened, we put together a benefit concert for the Port Authority police because they weren’t getting as much attention. Our manager said, call Kevin Cronin. So I did and I said, “Do you want to put something together?” and he said, “I’m in,” and that’s how we got to Rock to the Rescue (charity). Kevin has always been there, whenever I’ve asked him to do stuff. And (Don) Felder, that’s always fun. I come out on stage with him and I’m getting to play banjo with Felder! I don’t think anyone ever expected to see me doing that on “Take it Easy,” but it’s fun and I’m in Felder’s band for a little while. Those (Eagles) songs are part of the American songbook. He’s a lot of fun onstage. He’s always giving you a funny look or trying to make you mess up.
Q: Last year you were out with 38 Special and Don again. At what point do you start thinking about tour mates?
A: We’re always thinking about who might work and who we could get along with and will our fans like to see them and us. It’s a pretty tall task to have someone meet that criteria, but Charlie (Brusco, the band’s longtime Atlanta-based manager) is always looking. They have databases where they can tell who is the fan base for different bands. We’ve had some great luck with Def Leppard, Tesla.
Q: It’s pretty amazing that there are a handful of bands like you, Journey, Def Leppard who are still bringing in these crowds of 10,000 or more.
A: Especially when you know so many (fans who) weren’t alive when this music came out; they learned it through their parents. This music has just endured. You still have people playing it at a pretty high level and it resonates. The main thing is, do these songs do anything for you? And so much of classic rock still rings true.
Q: Is the tour name a nod to the current fragmentation in the country and the general feeling of not being united?
A: You know, I never really thought of it like that, but I guess it could apply. It was more a matter of, we’re all friends and get along. We’ve never been political. It’s like in outer space, people get along because there is a common purpose – it’s about, are we having a good time? At our shows, it’s just about music.
Q: Speaking of outer space and your new album that you guys surprised us with, it’s a pretty elaborate concept. How long has it been brewing?
A: Probably three years. It took so long because of the way the music business changed over the past decade. It’s been more about going out and touring, that’s how we reach our fans. While we were making the album we probably played 300 shows. We never had three months off to go in the studio and work on it, but it gave us time to develop the songs and get the arrangements right and how we wanted it to sound. We were able to put a lot of thought into it on the road.
Q: I love that you’ve been playing “Overture” the past couple of tours, but fans didn’t realize it was a new song.
A: It’s typical for us to have walk-on music and there’s stuff we’ve modified and added to the instrumental. We were doing my demo (of the song) as the walk-on music, and then the people who were really paying attention noticed it had changed. Lawrence had been playing pieces of (“Mission” track) “Khedive” and would get standing ovations, even though no one knew what it was.
Q: It must be tough to do a summer tour when fans want to hear the hits, but you have this new music you’re excited about. Might you do something in the fall that concentrates on “The Mission”?
A: We’re talking about it. The album is 42 minutes and eight seconds. We could do the album and come back after intermission and then play the songs everybody grew up with. The songs are all right in our wheelhouse. We do play “Radio Silence” (on this tour). It’s kind of a cliché when you hear a band say, “Here’s a song from our new album!” and people head for the beer stands but we said, let’s just see what happens. Not only did they NOT get up and go to the bathroom, but a lot of people were singing along with it and we got this huge response at the end of it. I guess it sounds really good. (Laughs)
Q: How do you keep your voice so supple? You’re still hitting some impressive high notes.
A: I just have to take care of it and be aware of it. You have to use it. That’s one of those things, if you don’t use it, you definitely lose it. I got the job in this band by singing the high notes in “Lady” and I still sing that high note. That’s what is expected of me. We play everything in the original key. We do everything live, if sometimes you hear something squeaky, it’s real.
Q: Who are you listening to? Any guitarists you’re impressed with?
A: Who has been such a surprise to me is John Mayer. The album with “Bold As Love”? Wow. When I heard he was playing with the Dead, I said, that doesn’t sound right to me and Todd, our drummer, said, “You have to listen to his one album…” That’s who he is at his core and the other things he did, they just became commercial and successful. My wife (Jeanne is in the background) says Harry Styles’ solo album. I have it on vinyl. I watched him on “SNL” and it blew my socks off. My wife says he’s the millennial Mick Jagger. He’s such a star and to see him go on his own and come on that strong, that’s cool.
I just heard a B.B. King song the other day on a Facebook file and it was him probably at 20-years-old and good Lord, what he was capable of doing in his prime. We go through binges…we went through a Skynyrd binge.
Q: Any kind of binge after Gregg Allman died?
A: I went through (Allman Brothers Band) “The Fox Box” after Gregg died. That’s been my latest thing, just listening to those guitar solos and thinking I need to go back and start over. Good music, new or old, it just endures. I never got to meet Gregg, but the guys were in front of a hotel one and he yelled out “Hey Styx!” I wasn’t there, but he said, “You guys play as much as I do!” You could hear sometimes (recently) that he sounded his age, but even then, there was a story in his voice. And his keyboard playing very underrated…it’s the glue that holds those songs together.
Q: Tell me about this concert you’re streaming next month aids (Aug. 22, from New Jersey) for people wearing hearing aids:
A: This company (Oticon) has this new technology that has streaming directly to the hearing aids. So many people come back from the military and have been around explosions or are hunters or have some inherited thing that caused them to lose hearing. There’s a little bit of a stigma to it, and it might be keeping people form going to concerts. But this company is making something to stream wirelessly, so people wearing the hearing aids are going to hear in stereo the mix that we’re doing. It’s a cool thing.
Q: You did that five-night residency with Felder at the Venetian this year, but has Styx ever talked about doing an real Vegas residency and getting off the road?
A: With this album, it’s kind of a cinematic album and so many people have said you have to put this in a movie or a play or Cirque du Soleil. It wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere down the road we looked at that. But we’re ramblers, we’re nomadic, having two days off somewhere is enough to make us lose our minds! I just love that (the album has) sparked everyone’s imagination like that. The night I brought the mix home, just about the time we started listening to it down in the studio, the computer went into screen saver mode, you know, those stars it does, and we watched that while listening to the music and it was like, wowwww! It’s great for the imagination. That’s one thing I recommend – people listening to it in full. Do not shuffle. Give yourself 42 minutes to sit between the speakers. There’s lots of fun stereo stuff going on. It’s a trip.
Styx and REO Speedwagon
With Don Felder. 7 p.m. July 23. $27.50-$99.50. Verizon Amphitheatre at Encore Park, 2200 Encore Parkway, Alpharetta. 1-800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com.