A lot of news-folks asked me, “Hey, gonna see Styx this weekend?” But they asked as if my answer should have been, “Oh, hell, no,” which would then give us license to lambaste the band as fossilized bloat, glistening arena-heap stomped down to size by karma. (The office can be an unusually cruel venue for entertainment-related badinage.) Instead, I said I wasn’t sure — you never know — but most signs pointed to “Yes.” At my age, I no longer need to justify or apologize for my musical tastes to Hipoisie buttinskies.
For one, I’ve always liked Styx; “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” are irrefutable (that’s right: IRREFUTABLE) masterpieces and I’ve owned them without shame in every conceivable format. I’m also a fan of progressive rock and of music in general, which is why I write about it (imagine!). When I interviewed keyboardist Lawrence Gowan last month, I busted my cortex suppressing my inner geek. My God, not only am I speaking to a genuine member of Styx, this is the man who recorded “A Criminal Mind” and hung out with Klaatu — and he’s calling me by name! After our conversation, I was on a high for weeks. What I wouldn’t give for five more minutes of him describing “Aku-Aku” or expressing his affection for “3:47 EST.”
Secondly, how often do you get to see a band like that for nothing but the inconvenience of shoulder-t0-shoulder humanity? If a prior commitment or incapacitation kept you from attending, I understand. If you didn’t go because you’re an unctuous gasbag who snorts like a cheap-tweed punk at technical virtuosity and heart-sewn choruses, then I feel contempt for you and pity for anyone you’ve sucked into your loveless vortex. Because all y’all missed a helluva show.
We trundled into Timber Linn Park at about 5 p.m. and weaved through the lockstep swarm passing through the Northwest Art & Air Festival gates, managing to stake a meager patch of real estate to the far right of the stage, where our view across the lake would be obscured somewhat by stacks of gear. The concert wasn’t scheduled to begin for another three hours, but the place was packed, endless flows from one side to the other.
Interim entertainment came in the form of PA-blasted classic rock. I counted at least three Kansas songs, two Alice Coopers and Bad Companys, Deep Purple’s “Woman from Tokyo” and the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” featuring the proto-Gonzo six-string panache of one Ted Nugent. The weather was agreeable — not too warm, not too brisk — crowds were drooling in, lawn chairs and blankets and towels and coats as far as the eye could wander.
I noticed a less cramped VIP section near the lake-crossing walkway that separated the riff-raff from the onstage talent and experienced pangs of jealousy when I spied publisher Mike McInally reclined comfortably, his perspective bereft of towering obstacles. I was a member of the press too; why couldn’t I swagger and badger into that sanctum? Why was I sitting way the hell over here, where Tommy Shaw would mostly be a disembodied head? As I petty-stewed, photographer Jesse Skoubo materialized to my left, festival badge dangling from his neck; we exchanged howdy-dos and he vanished to find Democrat-Herald reporter Kyle Odegard, who was wandering the property unsupervised.
One advantage we did have from our position was that we could see behind the stage. I knew the show was about to begin when I saw J.Y. bound off a bus, followed by Todd Sucherman, absently spinning his drumsticks. Then they disappeared, their whereabouts unacknowledged until a sudden surge of noise erupted from the field’s center. Styx had landed on time, as the sky yawned to a light orange and began its countdown to darkness. There they were, man: J.Y., Sucherman, Shaw, Lawrence Gowan and Ricky Phillips, primed to destroy.
They opened with “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” an appropriate choice for a largely working-class town. Everyone felt those words, baby, on this weekend pass from impossible odds. Coolers loaded with liquid vigor, bodies determined to shake it all loose. By the familiar key-squeeze that summoned “The Grand Illusion” — a regal charge, the announcement of a monarch’s arrival — most of the park was upright, surrendering to the song’s notion that it doesn’t matter if your neighbor’s got it made, or if Mike McInally’s a VIP, because deep inside we’re all the same.
It was Gowan’s first turn of the evening as a lead vocalist (Shaw powered “Blue Collar Man” and most of the rock-jawed numbers; J.Y. battened down “Lorelei” and “Miss America”), and he proved an impressive presence whether manipulating his spinning synth, strutting across the stage or massaging “Lady” into Goosebump City. The band sounded great. Tight, massive, loose, wild.
Styx definitely knew where they were; Shaw and Gowan referenced “Oregon” and “Albany” many times in banter and song. The latter even improvised a short town-related number and uncorked “Layla’s” commanding piano coda. Shaw segued from a long monologue about traveling through the state with his wife, breathing that succulent Northwest air, into “Man in the Wilderness,” a non-single from Side 2 of the “Grand Illusion” LP.
Thrilled outta my flip-flops, I jumped on Facebook and babbled my love, tapping song titles into the digital record as my cellphone began to die. The absent Jennifer Moody surfaced to grumble “Rub it in” as I continued my chronicle on fading juice. “Crystal Ball” came and went, and I harmonized on that chorus as quietly as I could. I cheered the unmistakable key leaps into “Fooling Yourself” and made a mental note to remark that Shaw still sounded as amazing as that “angry young man” who recorded the song 35 years ago. Before my battery spat its last, Jennifer asked me to tell-her-don’t-tell-her if they got around to “Snowblind.” (They did not.)
Consequently, I didn’t get to document in real time what transpired during perennial showstopper “Come Sail Away.” Gowan stepped up and announced that it was indeed a special night, one that would not go unnoticed by forces beyond our understanding. Those were all the introductory hints we needed: aliens, starships, angels, that beckoning to freedom — we were headed for epic skies.
As he lit into soft piano, I couldn’t help but remember something that happened years ago. I’d won a CD player, my first, at my West Albany High School senior all-night party and went on an obscene music binge. My dad picked up “The Grand Illusion,” but I confiscated it to isolate “Come Sail Away,” particularly the line “I think of childhood friends and the dreams we had.” Even back then I was a saccharin chump, picturing my newly graduated peers as figures in a distant netherworld. Now that I was older and some of those people were buried deep in the past — a few of them gone from this universe for one reason or another — those retro pre-retro impulses were stirred bittersweet.
My nostalgic meanderings were interrupted when Gowan hit “Reflections in the waves spark my memory” and I noticed an odd, almost poetic disturbance in the lake’s tranquil murk (the very body of water Gowan had earlier called “the river Styx”). Some yahoo, surrendering to whatever beer-soaked impulse overrides sense, had taken a voluntary plunge and was now swimming toward the stage. I’m still not sure whether he was angling for a better view or plotting a clamber up the walkway. In any case, he must have reconsidered, since everyone was watching, including a couple security guys standing on the bank. He paddled right back. Whether Shaw & Co. noticed this dip is unknown; they were rock ’n’ roll professionals, unfazed. (I once saw Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford skip a few “Love in an Elevator” licks to kick a stage diver in the ass. Hard.)
Styx later exited to allow a demand to build, which did not take long, and back they thundered with “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Renegade,” leaving the masses begging for more, more, more. These cats are artists, I tell you, wizards. There were a few unheeded post-encore pleas for “Mr. Roboto,” but the band doesn’t play that one or “Babe” anymore. If someone left unsatisfied after that ridiculously exhilarating set for its lack of “domo arigato” — well, there ain’t no hope for such a soul. I left on wings, eager to hit my stereo and drown in that river I’ve loved all my life.