When Tommy Shaw was performing “Crystal Ball” at a bowling alley in his native Alabama prior to his mid-‘70s invite to join Styx, even he couldn’t have prognosticated that the band would still be packing venues decades later.
The rest of the personnel has changed – singer-guitarist James “JY” Young is the only true original member, though singer-keyboardist Lawrence Gowan has handled Dennis DeYoung’s vocal contributions for 20 years, drummer Todd Sucherman took over sticks duty a year before the death of John Panozzo in 1996 and bassist Ricky Phillips joined in 2003 (co-founder/bassist Chuck Panozzo pops in occasionally when not dealing with health issues).
But this is a durable touring unit – as well as a fine studio troop, as represented on Styx’s 2017 album of new material, “The Mission” – and the band’s 90-minute performance at Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park on a brutally hot Sunday night illustrated their continued musical prowess.
Opening with a “Mission” track, “Gone Gone Gone,” with Phillips perched atop a platform behind the stage in prime rock star pose (knees bent, bass neck pointed skyward, hair brushing his shoulders), Styx immediately engaged the (mostly) sold-out crowd.
They dipped back to 1978 and 1977, respectively, with “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” and the sweeping “Grand Illusion” before Gowan continued his vocal turn with “Lady,” as Sucherman stayed busy with drums fills during the stately ballad.
The expected demographic of those who grew up wearing out the vinyl grooves of “Paradise Theatre” populated the majority of the audience. But a large contingent of 20-somethings and teens along for the experience of witnessing a premium live band also packed the venue.
Throughout the show, Gowan ably hit the notes written in the key of DeYoung (“Rockin’ the Paradise,” “Come Sail Away”), while Shaw’s voice is remarkably undiminished.
The always-gregarious master of ceremonies – a role he shares mostly with the booming-voiced Young – handled the lead for “Radio Silence,” a dreamscape of a song from “The Mission” tucked into a Beatles-esque melody, and sounded record-perfect on “Crystal Ball,” which he tagged with its original ending of an additional verse.
He also, while noting his Alabama roots, muttered, “Roll Tide,” which garnered the expected response from a Georgia crowd.
But the good-natured musician just threw back his head and laughed.
“That will be my final sports reference for the night,” he joked.
Young treated the crowd to his traditional guttural rendition of “Miss America” and asked fans to wave their cell phones as a backdrop to “Light Up,” ensuring that an extensive sampling of Styx’s catalog would be presented for prime singalongs.
The band heads overseas the first week of June before returning for another spate of U.S. dates, and it’s a journey worth taking.
Opening for Styx – and, ambitiously, taking the stage 15 minutes early to fit in their full set – was 38 Special.
Original singer-guitarist Don Barnes is still fronting the Southern rock outfit, along with a few other familiar faces – Bobby Capps on keyboards and Gary Moffatt on drums, plus relative newcomer Barry Dunaway on bass and new guitarist Jerry Riggs.
For an hour and 15 minutes, the quintet zigzagged through hits starting with 1980’s “Rockin’ Into the Night” and including “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys” – a showcase for Riggs’ skills - and a medley spotlighting “Back to Paradise,” “Honky Tonk Dancer” and their 1984 movie hit, “Teacher, Teacher.”
Capps offered a fine lead on the band’s biggest pop hit, “Second Chance,” his voice reminiscent of 38 Special keyboardist Max Carl, who recorded the song with the band in 1989.
But of course it was the pleasant guitar-rockers – “Hold on Loosely,” “If I’d Been the One” and “Caught Up in You” - that perfectly primed the crowd for Styx’s robust set.
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