Last Night: Styx at Reliant Stadium

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Styx Reliant Stadium March 4, 2013

When Styx made the decision to open with "Blue Collar Man" last night at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, I couldn't decide at first if the band was pandering to its anticipated crowd at something as common as a rodeo or being clever. I vacillated when Lawrence Gowan -- the Scots-Canadian replacement for former front man Dennis DeYoung, who famously split from the band in 1999 -- made a couple of jokes about sheep over the course of the ten-song show.

What sealed the deal, however, was the overtly patriotic display of animated stars and stripes exploding onto the curved wall behind the band when Styx shuffled out "Miss America," a song about as patriotic as J. Geils Band's "Centerfold." Whether it was the band or the Rodeo that decided this song should be played -- and backed in such odd fashion -- one thing was clear: Styx may have been trying a little too hard to fit in.

Not that I can blame the band. The bill at the weeks-long RodeoHouston concert series has become increasingly diverse over the years, steering away from hosting only country favorites toward acts that will bring in different crowds every night. Witness Thursday's bill of squeaky-voiced crooner Bruno Mars or this past Sunday's double-header of Demi Lovato -- a Disney teen star -- and some equally tween-ish singer called Austin Mahone whom I'd never heard of until the Rodeo brought him to town.

But at the end of the night, I didn't really care. I'd seen Styx perform and I could cross that off my bucket list.

While some in the audience were clearly peeved that not all of their own favorite hits were played, the great thing about a band like Styx is that it has no shortage of instantly recognizable songs to choose from in concert.

"Babe" -- the band's only No. 1 song -- was the most notable omission of the night, but that's likely only because it's a DeYoung song through and through. All of the original harmonies were even DeYoung himself, layering vocal track upon vocal track in the studio. And Monday night's harmonies started out rough enough as it was.

Tommy Shaw's voice was shaky and gruff as he worked his way though "Blue Collar Man," as were the backing vocals provided by James Young -- the only "original" member of Styx left now that John Panozzo and John Curulewski have passed away, Chuck Panozzo makes only occasional concert apperances and DeYoung rebuffs any calls of "Let's get the band back together!" with Broadway theatricality.

But then "Grand Illusion" seemed to kick the band into high gear, followed quickly by "Angry Young Man," and before long Styx had got its groove back. And although the vocals may have been Brillo-pad-coarse at first, there was never any denying Styx's musicianship otherwise.

Shaw can still shred a guitar, as can Young. Chuck Panozzo -- Styx's original bass player, who announced in 2001 that's he's been battling HIV -- even came out for a few songs, introduced by Shaw and Young with affectionate reverence.

Gowan proved, too, why he was ultimately selected as DeYoung's replacement in 1999, jackrabbiting up and down the stage with an excited energy that reminded me of another replacement lead -- Journey's own Arnel Pineda. He played the piano backwards at one point, in the style of the irreverent Mozart as depicted in Amadeus.

He wriggled around Todd Sucherman's massive drum set -- as big as Nick Andopolis's over-the-top set in Freaks and Geeks -- as if it were an obstacle course. He flirted with the cameras and encouraged Shaw to do the same.

It's difficult to imagine DeYoung strutting about with the same enthusiasm after all these years, and Gowan's charisma seemed to invigorate his band members as the short night wore on. By the time the chugging chorus of "Lady" was in full swing, it was as if time had rewound for Styx and they were all bright young men once again.

At one point, Gowan stopped the show for a brief musical interlude (which also served as a mid-show break for the rest of Styx, most of whom are at least ten years older than the relatively younger Gowan) and dazzled the crowd with a medley of other 1970s and 1980s favorites, starting with a beautifully rendered series of arpeggios and other classical ornaments that segued into..."Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics.

Before long, Gowan had worked through a catalog of other hits: "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Pinball Wizard," "Fat-Bottomed Girls," "Another Brick in the Wall" and more, as the crowd giggled and chanted along.

It was all a test, of course, to see if the Rodeo crowd -- which had given an embarrassingly low-key response to a call-and-response portion of "Too Much Time on My Hands" -- was ready to sing along with Styx's mega hit "Come Sail Away." Gowan deemed the crowd's enlivened singalong acceptable and shouted with a sly grin: "Now for that great seafaring song you're all waiting for."

By this point in the concert -- the seventh song of ten -- Gowan's voice was fading a bit, but the outsize stagecraft, blazing arena-rock lighting and synchronized strutting of Young, Shaw and Panozzo more than made up for it. Even if the exhibitionism was expected, it was never trite -- I'll give Styx that.

Many RodeoHouston acts struggle with the broad, dirt-covered distance between the stage and the audience. I was worried that a traditional arena-rock act such as Styx would find this disconnect off-putting, but the band managed to bridge the odd set-up effortlessly with a grace and guilelessness that was disarming.

It could be easy to feel a bit silly strutting around like Van Halen after all these years, but the charm of Styx is that the band commits to the bit and makes you believe that they're honestly at their happiest onstage -- all while Shaw jokes about certain songs having last been popular "during the Ford administration." And it's difficult to be unhappy or jaded when you're watching Tommy Shaw toss his hair around like the early '80s never ended.

By the time Styx closed the show with "Renegade," the audience had gotten what it came for: a mindlessly enjoyable trip down memory lane. The crowds around me discussed their favorite songs with glee, reminiscing about the first time they'd heard "Lady" or "Come Sail Away."

Even if Styx had pandered a bit, it only showed a slightly cockier side of a band remembered more these days for sillier songs like "Mr. Roboto" and "Babe" than anything else -- a band called "Chardonnay rock" by our own Pete Vonder Haar. They'd performed their job admirably, and gotten in a few sly punches to boot.

That's what I call entertainment.

Personal Bias: I wore out Styx's greatest-hits album in college, blaring it from my '94 Camry as I drove to classes at Baylor, because I am that big of a 1970s music nerd. (And consequently had very few friends.)

The Crowd: The fifty- and sixty-year-old suburban set reliving their high-school and college crushes, backseat makeout sessions and school dances.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Damn. They are a lot older than I am and they look a lot better than I do."

Random Notebook Dump Tommy Shaw -- with flowing blond locks and sleeveless-shirted frame -- looks like Chad Kroeger from a distance. It's... unsettling.

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