Photography by Charlie Holloway
Styx came to Atlanta on the evening of June 16th, and they were on a Mission. Because June 16th, you see, was the one-year anniversary of the release of their most recent studio album, The Mission. They celebrated that as well as last year’s 40th anniversary of their 1977 landmark album The Grand Illusion by bringing their brand of catchy radio-friendly prog-pop to the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Alpharetta, supported by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Tesla.
Running through many of their greatest hits, Styx wowed the crowd with a youthful energy and a spectacular stage show, which featured impressive animations based on their various album covers. While still riding the wave of The Mission’s release a year ago (read our review of it here), the band showcased their deep and rich legacy with a setlist that stretched as far back as 1973’s Styx II (playing the perennial classic rock radio love song staple, “Lady”) and featured many of the – if you’ll pardon the pun – cornerstones of its illustrious history. Turn on any classic rock station and at some point during the day you’re almost guaranteed to hear “Blue Collar Man,” “Renegade,” “Come Sail Away,” “Fooling Yourself,” or “Too Much Time on My Hands,” all of which were present and accounted for in the show. Alongside those were some of the lesser hits and iconic standards like “The Grand Illusion,” “Rockin’ the Paradise,” “Light Up,” and James “JY” Young’s big rock classic, “Miss America.” Some of the tempos were a little slower than what you’d hear on the original album versions, but the energy was high and the mood buoyant, belying the various members’ advancing ages. You would never guess from watching and listening to them onstage that the elder statesmen of the band – the cherubic Tommy Shaw and guitar monster JY – are mid-60s-pushing-70. In fact, the only cracks to be found in the pristine image were in Shaw’s voice, recovering as he was from a bout of laryngitis, and he certainly didn’t let affect his performance. The two youngest guys are vocalist/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan at 61 and powerhouse drummer Todd Sucherman at 59. Gowan, in particular, held a theatrical command over the audience, dancing around the stage or standing atop his keyboard, only sitting for the quieter piano numbers like “Lady” and the first two verses of “Come Sail Away.”
The highlights of the night, for me, were hearing four of the songs from The Mission performed live. The album is easily one of the best in the band’s career and the material sounds powerful and accomplished live, sitting quite comfortably and authoritatively alongside the familiar classics. Kicking off the night with the album’s opener and first single, “Gone Gone Gone” is a short, fast, kick-in-the-ass rocker that packs a whole lot of kapow into its 128 seconds. Based on a fiery riff by JY and sung by Gowan, it’s repeated motif of “Light it up, let’s get this show in the road” set the tone for a night of solid rock ‘n’ roll. After a string of big hits, the group presented the centerpiece of the show: Shaw’s modern masterpiece, “Radio Silence.” It’s an epic, expansive song about isolation and a struggle against hopelessness. Think his classic track from The Grand Illusion, “Man in the Wilderness,” but set in space. Two songs later, we were treated to The Mission’s cinematic climax, “The Outpost,” a song about breaking through adversity and seeing hope on the horizon. For his piano solo, Gowan presented the beautiful piece “Khedive” before launching the audience into a big group singalong of the operatic mid-section of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The big surprise of the night, though, was in the encore: after a killer show and a rousing ovation from the audience, Styx resumed the stage to play their 1983 hit “Mr. Roboto.” Two things make that surprising: 1) This tour is the first time the band has ever played that song live. Yes, it was the opening song of the 1983-4 Kilroy Was Here tour, but original singer/writer Dennis DeYoung sang it live to a backing track. 2) Kilroy Was Here was the album that finally splintered Styx after a few years of division and strife about the direction of the band between DeYoung and the rest of the guys, causing Shaw to quit the band. That Tommy and JY have now come to terms with all that song represents is a big thing, and the crowd ate it up.
The whole night was a classic rock fan’s dream, kicking off with those modern-day cowboys, Tesla, celebrating their 30th anniversary. This was my first time seeing Tesla live, and I wasn’t disappointed. I expected to hear a good, competent rock show and that’s exactly what they delivered. Their eight-song, 45-ish-minute set was packed with killer tunes led by the solid guitar delivery of Frank Hannon and the sandpaper voice of Jeff Keith.
Joan Jett and her rowdy gang of Blackhearts played their reliably sturdy brand of kick-ass punk-inspired rock to an enthusiastic crowd. Joan and the boys never fail to deliver a killer show and this was no exception. Armed with a battery of guided rock ‘n’ roll missiles like “Cherry Bomb,” “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Crimson and Clover” and especially “I Hate Myself For Loving You” that never failed to hit their target, the Heartbreakers rocked the faces off an adoring crowd. One of the highlights of their set was a new song, “Fresh Start,” which is featured in a new documentary about Jett’s career called, of course, Bad Reputation, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January. Sadly, checking their setlists from previous nights I learned that the Jetthearts shortened their set by one song, leaving out their excellent cover of Iggy Pop’s “Real Wild Child,” presumably because weather issues caused the band to start a few minutes late.
Kudos go to the audience as well. This was a pretty fired up crowd that remained standing for much of the show. About a third of the crowd stood for the whole of Tesla’s set and everyone was on their feet for pretty much all of Jett and Styx’s respective sets (except, predictably, for Styx’s new songs). I really hate sitting down at rock shows, so this was a nice surprise. All three bands showed the Atlanta audience a great time and the crowd responded in kind.