It seems like one of the requirements for being a professional music critic these days is to have a professed loathing of such bands as Styx, Journey, Kansas, and the rest of the classic AOR pantheon. Screw that! I'm certainly no professional music critic, but I'll take Styx over most of the current crop of critic's darlings any day of the week. I grew up on most of the great arena rock bands of the 70's and 80's, and their music will always be welcome in my home – no matter how bad some of their later stuff got.
In 1978, while in junior high school, and still formulating my musical tastes, I was given my first Styx album, Pieces Of Eight, as a Christmas present. Fueled by the power of such arena rock anthems as "Blue Collar Man" and "Renegade", the album quickly became one of my favorites. Unfortunately, the following year's disappointing Cornerstone album quickly dampened my enthusiasm, so I settled on earlier Styx classics like The Grand Illusion and Crystal Ball, and eventually absorbed some of their earliest, more progressive albums like The Serpent Is Rising.
I first heard about this DVD when Tommy Shaw announced its forthcoming release during a Styx concert I attended this summer in Fairfax, Virginia. Styx drew a monstrous crowd for this outdoor festival, and they put on a killer show. The band's current lineup consists of sole founding member James "JY" Young (guitar & vocals), 30-year veteran Tommy Shaw (guitar & vocals), and relative newcomers Ricky Phillips (bass and guitar), Lawrence Gowan (keyboards & vocals), and Todd Sucherman (drums). Founding bassist Chuck Panozzo still occasionally performs with the band, but has not been a regular touring member since being diagnosed with AIDS in 2001.
Last year, Liza Grossman, who conducts the Contemporary Youth Orchestra of Cleveland, personally contacted Styx's management about joining forces with the band for this unique concert experience that we are fortunate enough to now have on DVD. The rock band meets orchestra thing has been a popular trend lately and has produced some mixed results. If you want to see just how good it can work, check out Collective Soul's magnificent Home concert DVD, which was released earlier this year, and features The Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. I must admit that I was not expecting it, but Styx's One With Everything is damn-near as good.
The Contemporary Youth Orchestra, or CYO, is a 115-piece orchestra and 60-voice chorus, made up entirely of teenagers ranging in age from 13-19. It was refreshing to see this group of kids, who were not even born yet when Styx was at the pinnacle of their career, play this music with the enthusiasm of lifelong fans. The show was one non-stop party with all of the kids dancing and singing between each of their parts, barely able to stay in their seats as they played, and constantly cheering on their orchestra mates and the band. Liza Grossman, who looks remarkably like Tony Soprano's sister Janice, was also into the performance like she had spent many a night partying to some Grand Illusion back in the day.
One With Everything was recorded at the Blossom Music Center in Cleveland Ohio, on May 25, 2006, about three weeks before the concert I attended. The orchestra kicks off the proceedings with some simple "Blue Collar Man"-themed intro music, as the band unassumingly takes their places on stage. As soon as Lawrence Gowan reaches his keyboard stand, he launches into the killer opening riff to Styx's working man's anthem, "Blue Collar Man". Wow! The sound is huge, and the energy in the arena is amazing. Right away you can tell that this is going to be a special night.
For the second song, they go all the way back to 1975's Equinox album for a spirited rendition of "Lorelei". Instead of Gowan handling the lead vocal chores, which were originally performed by Styx's founding member Dennis De Young, JY gave his unique spin on the tune, and it sounded surprisingly good. When the rest of the band joined in on the harmony vocal chorus, it was elevated to awesome.
Speaking of De Young, the band must have really wanted to stick it to their former frontman, when it came to the royalties department. With the exception of De Young's shared writing credit for "Lorelei", and some of his songs being featured in the medley, all of the Styx songs in the set were written exclusively by Shaw or JY. They went so far as to even leave off such beloved Styx classics as "Lady" and "Come Sail Away". What a shame. Don't worry though, because Shaw also wrote many of the band's best tunes, and they are all featured prominently here.
This tour was in support of Styx's 2005 album of classic rock covers, Big Bang Theory, and the show features a few of that albums best tracks. Young introduces the Willie Dixon classic "It Don't Make Sense (You Can't Make Peace)" with a heartfelt speech about meeting Dixon's widow a few years ago, and about just how insightful some of his lyrics are. One of the CYO's female violinists launches the tune with some wonderful country-fiddle like licks that are eventually matched by Shaw's bluesy slide guitar riffs. This performance simply blew away the album version.
The early highlight of the show was Styx's brilliant cover of the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus". This was easily the best song on the Big Bang Theory album, and hearing it performed with all of its full orchestral glory was amazing. One of the band's best newer songs, comes by way of their Cyclorama album, which was released in 2003. I have the album, and never really found any of the songs to be particular standouts, but, damn if "One With Everything" doesn't sound incredible here. Props again to the CYO!
The two cover songs are followed by two brand new, previously unreleased songs, "Just Be" and "Everything All the Time". "Just Be" is a beautiful Shaw ballad that I remember from the concert I attended, but it sounds much more majestic here with the full orchestration. "Everything All the Time" starts off as a rather uninspired Damn Yankees leftover, until it breaks into the gorgeous harmony vocal section that featured the CYO chorus. This was immediately followed by a short, scene-stealing drum solo from the incredible Todd Sucherman, which propels the song to a strong finish.
Shaw introduces "Crystal Ball" with a story about how he wrote the song while playing in a bowling alley lounge with a bunch of his high school buddies, wondering if his life might only amount to working at said bowling alley, and then, out of the blue, James Young calls him up and asks him to join Styx. After a rocking run through of "Miss America", which features the chorus singing a few bars of "Here she comes, Miss America", Gowan introduces one of his old solo songs, "A Criminal Mind", which first appeared on his 1985 album Strange Animal, and was later covered by Styx on their 2003 album 21st Century Live. This is a beautiful piano ballad that is bolstered wonderfully by Shaw's mandolin, and the string section of the CYO. They must have wanted to throw Gowan a bone for phasing out most of the De Young classics that he used to get to sing.
After a blazing performance of the Paradise Theater smash hit, "Too Much Time on My Hands", Shaw strapped on his mandolin one more time for the folksy "Boat On The River", which Shaw observed, "outside the U.S., this may be our biggest song ever, because every country that re-recorded it, sounded like their own folk song in their language." That's funny, I don't recall ever hearing any Italian or German versions of this song, but I'll take his word for it. His version is pretty damn cool though, and is certainly one of the few highpoints of their Cornerstone album.
"I Don't Need No Doctor", which was originally made famous by the English hard rock band Humble Pie, is the hardest rocking number in this set, especially since the orchestra just laid down their instruments to stand up an dance. This version fell a little flat for me though, because Gowan's silky-smooth voice was a poor match for the song I most associate with Steve Marriot's gruff, cigarette-scarred vocals. Give the song to JY instead. Another highlight of the show was the "Styx CYO Medley", which touched on every album from Equinox ("Midnight Ride") to Kilroy Was Here ("Heavy Metal Poisoning").
Last year a two-disk compilation of the first four Styx albums, Styx, Styx II, The Serpent Is Rising, and Man of Miracles, was released titled The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings, in reference to the label on which they were all released. They could have blown the minds of a few really old-school Styx fans by dusting off a few of those songs for the medley, but unfortunately Equinox was as far back as they dared to venture.
Styx closed the show strongly with two of Shaw's biggest hits, "Fooling Yourself" and "Renegade". "Fooling Yourself" is preceded by an amazing cello intro by two boys in the orchestra, and before launching the song, Shaw introduces Chuck Panozzo who comes out to play bass on the final two songs. Phillips switches over to guitar at this point. Great performance of this Grand Illusion classic, but somebody really needs to tell Gowan to knock off his stupid "I can play the keyboards behind my back" antics – it looks ridiculous. The band had some fun improvising on "Renegade", as Shaw introduced the band members, and then teased the crowd with "we don't want to go… we could stay here and do this all night… get up in the morning and do it again!", before eventually conceding that they had a gig in Long Island the next night. A massive confetti blizzard signaled the end of an amazing show.
The production quality of this DVD was stellar, with the exception of a few annoyances with the two surround mixes. Both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound mixes were provided, and they generally did a remarkable job with such a huge ensemble of musicians. I thought that the orchestra overwhelmed the band at times, and some of the brass was mixed too loud in the rear surround speakers. The lone tuba player, and perhaps the bass trombonist, must have paid off the sound engineer, because they were mixed excessively loud in the rear surrounds, at times, making things sound very unnatural and distracting. The guitars could have been mixed a little louder too, to give the songs a more heavier tone, but with these few exceptions, the audio sounded excellent overall.
The video looked stunning and was helped by a very brightly lit stage. The lighting was configured primarily to provide the best video recording results, and to give the orchestra enough light to perform, so don't be expecting some flashy light show. I would have preferred a more traditional rock concert style light show to supplement the band's performance, but it appeared that the orchestra's needs were given equal credence this night. The camera work was outstanding and the director brilliantly captured all of the best moments of the show.
Bonus features included two rather lackluster Christmas songs, "All I Want" and "Ring The Bells", which were filmed at the same show, an interview with the band, and a photo gallery. The highlight, however was drummer Todd Sucherman's "Quake Cam", where a single camera intimately captures his dazzling drum performance during the "Styx CYO Medley", with the rest of the band muted.
One With Everything proves that rock band and orchestra can harmoniously coexist. I have seen Styx a couple of times in concert with this current lineup, once with Glen Burtnik instead of Ricky Phillips, and they are rocking harder than ever now with Shaw and JY in charge. If you were ever a Styx fan, don't hesitate to catch these guys the next time they come your way. In the mean time, treat yourself to this excellent DVD.
01. Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
03. One With Everything
04. It Don't Make Sense (You Can't Make Peace)
05. I Am The Walrus
06. Just Be
07. Everything All the Time
08. Crystal Ball
09. Miss America
10. A Criminal Mind
11. Too Much Time on My Hands
12. Boat On The River
13. I Don't Need No Doctor
14. The Styx CYO Medley: Put Me On / Mademoiselle / Heavy Metal Poisoning / Midnight Ride / Sing for the Day / Shooz / Queen Of Spades / Great White Hope / Half Penny Two Penny / Borrowed Time / Rockin' The Paradise / Lights / Man In The Wilderness
15. Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)