You’ll usually find them near the top of most rock critics "worst band" lists, but I, for one, still have a soft spot for many of Styx and REO Speedwagon‘s arena-rock classics. When Styx rolled through my neck of the woods last summer headlining in front of Peter Frampton and Nelson, of all people, the cheap ticket prices (for three bands) and availability of good seats, only a few days before the show, made this one too hard to pass up. Based on the reaction of all the fellow 80’s high school grads gloriously playing air guitar beside me, I was not the only one who was still enjoying the occasional Styx indulgence.
Tommy Shaw was looking more 80’s-hair-metal-guitar-god than ever, sporting ass-length hair and a thick, pointy goatee, as he and fellow guitarist and founding band member James Young looked like kids in a candy store to be up their rockin’ the arena crowds again – their way! The Dennis DeYoung power-ballads were all but gone, and the heavier songs like "Snowblind" and "Blue Collar Man" now took center stage. Shaw was even cool enough to come out during the Nelson brother’s solo acoustic set to jam with them on a couple of their dad’s (Ricky Nelson) classics. They also performed a majestic version of the Damn Yankees‘ hit "High Enough", which easily outshined the original arrangement.
REO hasn’t really put out anything new worth listening to since 1980’s Hi Infidelity, although they did score big with a few more dreadful, arena-rock, ballads on their two subsequent albums. I saw them on their Wheels Are Turning tour back in the mid-80’s when they were still the kings of the hockey rinks, riding the wave of a number one smash with "Can’t Fight This Feeling", and they did not disappoint. REO albums have typically consisted of a few good songs hidden between a lot of miserable filler, so luckily they have released a couple of decent "best of" compilations. I’d recommend the Decade Of Hits 1970-1980 double album, which is all of the REO I have ever needed. I think when Gary Richrath left the band in 1990, so left their balls – not that they were that big to begin with. I’ve reviewed their Live Plus concert DVD, and Arch Allies is the exact same show, minus a few songs. If you want a more in-depth review of their performance, check out that review.
I didn’t seriously consider picking up Arch Allies until after I saw that Styx concert last year, and I found myself jonesin’ for more. Like a former cigarette addict who finds himself drunk in a smoke filled bar, I found myself digging through my CD collection in search of The Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight to feed my craving. Then it was down to the basement to fire up the Marshall, dust off the guitar, and jam to some "Queen Of Spades" – it’s one of the easier ones. I had forgotten just how good this stuff could be.
I was hoping that Styx had recorded the 2004 tour for DVD, but it is not looking to be the case. Arch Allies is a few years older, recorded on June 8, 2000, at the Riverport Amphitheatre, St. Louis, Missouri, which is roughly the home turf of both these bands. Styx takes the stage first and opens with their rock anthem ”Blue Collar Man", which instantly whips the, uh, "middle-aged" fans into a frenzy. It was nice to see the abundance of teenagers in the audience as well. Whatever you may think of Styx‘ music, it still sure as hell beats Linkin Park and the other rap-rock geniuses that kids are listening to these days.
Styx are now sporting a more powerful rhythm section with Glen Burtnik on bass (he’s since been replaced by Ricky Phillips), and Todd Sucherman on drums. Lawrence Gowen has replaced Dennis DeYoung on keyboards and his vocals are a good enough facsimile of DeYoung to satisfy all but the most ardent fans. Shaw’s vocals are better than ever and the band is performing with renewed passion. They dole out a couple more of the early classics beginning with the prog-pop epic "Fooling Yourself ", which features a special appearance by original bassist Chuck Panozzo, who has only occasionally joined the band on tour since being diagnosed as HIV positive in 1991. Gowan led off "Lady" with an extended piano intro before launching into the famous opening chords of this DeYoung classic. I think DeYoung’s vocals are a little more powerful, but I don’t think you could find a better replacement than Gowan.
For those of us who have not followed Styx since their 80’s heyday, they allotted the middle portion of their short set to some of their newer material. "Brave New World" from the 1999 album of the same name, is a decent progressive rocker, which if you close your eyes you might swear you are listening to the neo-prog of England’s Threshold or Arena – for those of you who are familiar. "Heavy Water", from the same album, is sung by James Young, whose sinister vocal delivery is certainly an acquired taste. Kind of like with Kiss‘ Gene Simmons. His vocals are especially over the top on this song, and the chorus sounds almost identical to Jefferson Starship‘s "Ride The Tiger", but I dug this rocker – a lot. "Edge Of The Century", from the 1990 album of the same name, is a rather bland pop number, which features the lead vocals of Glen Burtnik, who had replaced Tommy Shaw in the early 90’s. It is obvious why, because he sounds almost identical to Shaw, but with a little less power. This does make for some excellent four-part harmonies with Shaw, Gowan, Burtnik, and Young all being quite good lead vocalists.
Styx closed out their set with two of their biggest hits, "Too Much Time On My Hands" and "Renegade", the song that originally got me into Styx waaaaaay back in Jr. high school. "Renegade" was loose, energized, and featured plenty of improvised guitar work from Young and Shaw. They had the audience and I begging for more – especially since they only performed a short 45-minute set.
REO had the headlining spot on this particular night of the tour, and they opened things up with the High Infidelity classic "Don’t Let Him Go". Just like with the Live Plus DVD, Dave Amato’s great guitar performance is drowned in the mix. It’s as if Kevin Cronin was jealous and wanted his acoustic guitar to take center stage. Sorry, but an acoustic guitar should not overpower a Les Paul through a Marshall! Most of these performances pale in comparison to some of their older live performances from their great Live – You Get What You Pay For album, where Richrath was definitely not fighting to be heard. REO eventually redeemed themselves with a killer version of their boogie-rock classic "157 Riverside Avenue" to close out their set. Founding members Bruce Hall and Neal Doughty really shine on the bass and piano, and Amato tears it up.
After REO‘s set the members of Styx come out to join them for a two song jam. Oddly, the first song they perform together is "Blue Collar Man"? What did they think, that the crowd forgot it was Styx‘s opening song? I don’t quite understand that choice. To close out the jam, they finally unleash my all-time favorite REO song, "Roll With The Changes". Hell, that was probably a repeat as well, because REO played it during their regular set on the Live Plus DVD.
The video transfer is reasonably sharp and the stage is always brightly lit enough to overcome any problems you sometimes see with shadow detail. The camera work was satisfactory, although I would have enjoyed more medium distance shots of the whole stage. The audio tracks sounded good, but not much better than average. The mix was very clear and the instrument separation was excellent. The Dolby 5.1 surround track utilized the rear surround speakers nicely, especially during the Styx set, where some of vocal harmonies and instruments were mixed in with the crowd noise to provide a good live ambience. For both bands, the electric guitars were not as prominent in the mix as they should have been. The special features included some simple biographies and discographies for both bands, a photo gallery from the tour, and audio interviews with Tommy Shaw and Kevin Cronin.
If you have never been a fan of REO Speedwagon or Styx, Arch Allies is not likely to win you over. But if you still have fond memories of cranking your Pieces Of Eight 8-track tape, while cruisin’ the town in your ’73 Chevy Chevelle, you not only grew up eerily similar to myself, but you will probably also love this DVD.
Blue Collar Man
Brave New World
Edge of the Century
Too Much Time on My Hands
Don’t Let Him Go
Take It on the Run
Can’t Fight This Feeling
Time for Me to Fly
Back on the Road Again
Keep on Loving You
Ridin’ the Storm Out
157 Riverside Avenue
Styx & REO Jam
Blue Collar Man
Roll With the Changes
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