Classic Rock Corner

Dennis DeYoung and Night Ranger, January 27, Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land

Dennis DeYoung with guitarists Jimmy Leahey (left) and August Zadra crank out the Styx hits.
Dennis DeYoung with guitarists Jimmy Leahey (left) and August Zadra crank out the Styx hits. Photo by Bob Ruggiero
As the co-founder, principal vocalist/songwriter, and keyboardist for classic rock warhorse group Styx, it was a shock to fans when Dennis DeYoung was ousted from the group in 1999 for (take your pick) medical, personal, and/or creative reasons.

But he wasn’t about to give up performing much of the same material that the current version of the group tours with. Thus he flies under the banner of the legally-hammered out moniker “Dennis DeYoung and The Music of Styx.”

And Saturday night he delivered FM radio and turntable hit after hit from the group in a strong, operatic voice that’s lost surprisingly little register. His nimble fingers also flew across his electronic keyboards in recreating his famous instrumental breaks, while shimmying and strutting across the stage with an energy that belied his age.

Highlights included the impassioned and powerful ballads “The Best of Times” and “Babe” – the latter tune which he told the audience was written for his wife and not even meant to be a Styx song (shout out to Couples Skate time at Magic Skate in Humble for you local Gen Xers!). Of the harder numbers, a deep “Suite Madame Blue” (which he called his favorite Styx song) and “Lorelei” stood out.

He even injected some good humor into “Mr. Roboto,” busting out some mechanical moves with his guitarists while holding aloft the Asian-inspired mask famous from the video. The same mask that adorned a T-shirt at the merch booth with the all-too-prophetic thought from 1983: “The problem’s plain to see/Too much technology.”

A crack backing band included August Zadra (lead guitar/vocals), Jimmy Leahey (guitar), John Blasucci (keyboards), Craig Carter (bass), Mike Morales (drums), and DeYoung’s wife of 48 years (!!), Suzanne on backing vocals.

Zadra and Leahey, in particular, are monster instrumentalists, though it’s likely not a coincidence that they are both physical dead ringers of DeYoung’s former Styx bandmates Tommy Shaw and James “J.Y.” Young in the same positions. Then again, the Styx of today features singer/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who has a more than passing vocal and stage presence resemblance to DeYoung. In any case, Zadra soared singing on the originally Shaw-fronted Styx numbers including “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)”, “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” and “Renegade.”

click to enlarge Dennis DeYoung with his wife of 48 years and the inspiration behind "Babe" (and likely, "Lady" and "The Best of Times"), Suzanne. Still smitten, they held hands and slow danced during the show. - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Dennis DeYoung with his wife of 48 years and the inspiration behind "Babe" (and likely, "Lady" and "The Best of Times"), Suzanne. Still smitten, they held hands and slow danced during the show.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Were he not a musician – and lived in another era – DeYoung could have had a fine career as a Borscht Belt stand-up comic, as he showed us a bit when we spoke with him in 2015.

On this night, he discussed his physical prowess. “I’m 71 years old and I just completed my first marathon,” he told the Sugar Land audience, garnering immediate applause. But wait for it. “My first ‘Law and Order’ marathon. Twelve hours. Boy, my ass hurt! Then I ordered a pizza.”

Suzanne DeYoung even drew laughs by dryly imploring the crowd to “friend” her husband on Facebook because “he’s very needy” and supposedly reads fan posts to her over the breakfast table. Houston also got a shout out when DeYoung said the two best-sounding venues he’s ever played at were the Forum in L.A. and Houston’s Summit.

Of course, the show closed with Styx’s most anthemic song and surefire audience participation tune, “Come Sail Away.” I even spotted an actual cigarette lighter flame on. Unfortunately, the impact of the closer was dulled by a muddy sound mix that plagued a good chunk of DeYoung’s set and some of Night Ranger’s. Vocals were mixed down, the guitars not as crisp as they should have been, and the bottom was extra heavy. It was an unfortunate first time for this technical snafu after seeing many shows at the venue.

As Tommy Shaw and James Young have made clear, and Shaw reiterated in an interview with us early this year, it’s unlikely that DeYoung will be asked to rejoin Styx. Fans can only hope that the surviving members might reunite for a few tunes if they ever get their long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But for now, the positive glint is that there’s twice the chance to hear Styx music live somewhere out there.

click to enlarge Kelly Keagy and Brad Gillis of Night Ranger. - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Kelly Keagy and Brad Gillis of Night Ranger.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Opening the show with a set almost as long as the headliner were reliable rockers Night Ranger, extending just a bit the tour celebrating the 35th anniversary of their record debut. The current lineup includes original members Jack Blades (lead vocals/guitar), Brad Gillis (guitar), and Kelly Keagy (drums/vocals), along with Eric Levy (keyboards), and Keri Kelli (guitars).

Early highlights included a rocked-up version of “The Secret of My Success” (written as the theme for the 1987 Michael J. Fox film), the Keagy sung-and-sold-hard “Sentimental Street,” and a touching “Goodbye.”

Blade often chatted amiably between songs, enthused about Texas audiences often, including a 1985 gig at Astroworld, as well as playing in places like McAllen. He also noted that it was at a KLOL radio station event in Houston that the idea for the supergroup Damn Yankees (which also included Ted Nugent, Michael Cartellone, and…Styx’s Tommy Shaw) fermented. And Night Ranger put their stamp on that band’s two heavy MTV-rotated hits “Coming of Age” and “High Enough.”

click to enlarge Jack Blades of Night Ranger. - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Jack Blades of Night Ranger.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
They also included a few others covers, including a limp take on Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” (a nod to Kelli’s decade playing with the Shock Rocker) but an incendiary run at Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”

As my little brother Jamie – hardcore Night Ranger fan – schooled me, Gillis was tapped for an Ozzy tour and live album after the sudden accidental death of guitarist Randy Rhoads. Poor Jamie was making good this night on a 33-year-old wish after missing out seeing Night Ranger at that Astroworld gig (he even had a date!). He's also finally graduating from college this year with a degree in sound engineering, so...never give up on your dreams!

He also enthused to me in fairly strong terms about the innovative and impeccable guitar work of Brad Gillis, which he called woefully underrated. And his playing was duly impressive live. As another Night Ranger fan Brent Kelly (who was himself  at Astroworld in 1985) put it to me thusly while in line for beer:

"Brad is such a great player and doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He was super innovative with his style, especially what he did with the whammy bar. But that kind of flashy playing went out of style. I wish they had played ‘Rumours in the Air.’”

Night Ranger pulled out their big anthems toward the end, for a moment the middle-aged crowd was transported through time with a superlative “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “Sister Christian,” and closer “(You Can Still) Rock in America.”

For “Sister Christian,” Keagy again started off at center stage and away from his kit, building to the song’s dramatic climax. Images from the video of the desultory schoolgirl staring into her uncertain post-high school future undoubtedly filled the mental mind screens of the audience. But don’t fret – I understand that she got married to Mr. Roboto, and they live in the suburbs with three 300 MB kids and a couple of pets. Domo arigato.

Set Lists
Dennis DeYoung

The Grand Illusion
Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
Mr. Roboto
Too Much Time On My Hands
Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
Prelude 12 > Suite Madame Blue
The Best of Times
Come Sail Away

Night Ranger

Somehow Someway
Four in the Morning
Sing Me Away
Coming of Age
The Secret of My Success
Sentimental Street
Sweet Child O’Mine (intro)/School’s Out
Crazy Train
High Enough
When You Close Your Eyes
Don’t Tell Me You Love Me > Highway Star
Sister Christian
(You Can Still) Rock in America

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero