by Mike Mettler

photos by Jason Powell

Neither torrential rain nor persistent thunder could derail the kickoff to Styx’s big summer tour with Def Leppard and Tesla, which got underway in fine fashion at the MidFlorida Ampitheatre in Tampa, Florida on June 23. While inclement weather delayed the start of the show for almost 90 minutes (and ultimately prevented Tesla from performing at all last night), it did nothing to dampen Styx’s enthusiasm once the band hit the stage at 8:25 p.m. “When you’re playing outdoors, there are a lot of things you can control, but you can’t control the weather,” guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw says backstage, shortly after the band wrapped a rousing, set-closing gallop through “Renegade” at 9:07 p.m. “You do everything you can. We waited for the lightning to pass, and we found our window. I feel bad Tesla didn’t get to play, but we’re playing a lot of shows on this tour, and we’ll be glad to see them rock it in West Palm Beach [on June 25]. We were also prepared not to play so Def Leppard could play longer, but they said no. So we shortened our set just for tonight only, and we were doing things on the fly. We live for stuff like that!”

The audience, which had waited patiently through the quite lengthy rain/lightning delay, was on its feet the whole time, right from the minute Styx hit the stage. “We have some good fans in this part of the country,” Tommy grins. “It sure looked pretty great out there.”

Styx co-founder guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young heartily agrees. “Even under some of the most adverse conditions that could be, it was a joyful moment for our band being out onstage tonight,” he says after the set, standing just outside the band’s dressing room while the rain, as if on cue, resumes its downpour to serve as a rhythmic background to our conversation. “Tesla, unfortunately, didn’t get to play, and they’re such a great band. But there are lot of shows to come where we’ll see them in action — plus, we’re in Tampa, which is the lightning capital of the planet.”

Def Leppard was quite glad to see Styx perform such a great set in Tampa, and they’re looking forward to sharing a long, fruitful summer ahead. “It’s always nice to hook up with old friends and tour together, because we already have a special vibe,” observes Phil Collen, Def Leppard’s lead guitarist. (Styx and Leppard last toured together in 2007.)

JY, in turn, also has a deep respect for the headliners. “We love playing with Def Leppard,” he affirms. “Joe Elliott knocked on our door, and we hugged like old friends, like we hadn’t missed a beat in 8 years since we had last seen each other. Phil Collen also came over and hugged me, and their crew treated our crew so well. There’s a very dear spot in our hearts for them, and vice-versa. I sense that these bands belong together more than every 8 years, so 3 or 4 years down the line, we’ll do this once more, at the least.”

The godfather of Styx is encouraged by the diverse audience mix he saw while looking out at the crowd in Tampa. “I saw at least half of the people singing along with our songs,” JY reports. “I mean, I can’t see very far, and maybe they snuck up to the front, but nonetheless, there’s a resonance with them. Their fans and ours are a little bit different, but it’s good for them, and it’s good for us. Def Leppard is completely a class act. They’re a phenomenal band, and we’re a phenomenal band. Hopefully, we’ll convert some of their fans, and they’ll come back to see another Styx show. These days, for a classic-rock band, this is how we rebuild our audience.”

Concurs keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, “Def Leppard are such a fun and affable group of people to be around. Who wouldn’t be excited about touring together with them? It’s a great show, and it’s diverse enough between the two musical styles. You cast the net wider to play to people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to see you. Also, they’re Brits, so they have a great sense of humor. They don’t take stuff too seriously.” (It’s true — as he approached a group of us standing backstage, Joe Elliott sang a few guttural syllables and then added, “or words to that effect,” before he sauntered down a ramp, headed directly to the stage to commence Leppard’s headlining set.)

Earlier in the afternoon, it was quite clear Styx was already firing on all cylinders during an hour-long soundcheck, which came across as a full-on, balls-out rock show for an audience of maybe a few-dozen. Tommy, sporting a gray Johnny Cash t-shirt and knee-length shorts, leaned his head back in elation near the outset of “The Grand Illusion,” original bassist Chuck Panozzo nailed his spotlight bass-riff break while Ricky Phillips carried the low-end fort in “Fooling Yourself,” a flickering video-backdrop panel was replaced with ease during a gritty “Blue Collar Man,” and the high harmonies were right on point when Lawrence and Tommy shared the microphone during the denouement of “Lady.”

After that run-through, the band huddled together near guitar tech Jimmy “JJ” Johnson’s station on Tommy’s side of the stage as JY and drummer Todd Sucherman offered some insightful technical suggestions and tweaks. Before heading off to his dressing room, Tommy assessed the rehearsal. “It’s nice to be in a big house again,” he says with a big grin. “It feels awesome! I mean, we just played a really good show! Playing in the heat like that also helps grease the chute.”

During said sweltering rehearsal, Lawrence was able to recognize some adjustments that would be needed due to the nuances of the venue. “It has a concave roof, so the sound takes its time to waft down,” he explains as we settle into the tour bus lounge. “The house sounds a little bit indistinct from the stage, but with a whole lot of bodies in there, it’ll all work its way out. Gary [Loizzo, the band’s longtime live sound mixing engineer/producer] particularly knows how to fine-tune our vocals live.”

Lawrence feels last week’s string of shows in the Bahamas helped the band prep for the summer run. “The good thing about the warm-up last week was we were in close quarters,” he points out. “The stacked vocal harmonies, particularly in the choruses — if we’re hitting those at full stride, it’s really powerful and it has an impact that’s quite unique to this band. Styx harmonies hit like a horn blast, so hopefully all those things we fine-tuned last week will be captured here in the larger venues.”

One new thing you’ll immediately notice about Styx’s live set is that the music they walk onstage to has officially changed. “We’re calling it ‘Overture,’” explains Tommy of the brand-new composition. “We used ‘Drastic Measures’ for about 10 years, so it’s the right time to have a new intro.”

Another new element is what you’ll see appear on the big screen behind the band. “They’re not able to use the full-on show that I usually do for them since they’re not headlining,” explains the band’s veteran video coordinator/director, Steven A. Jones. “Charlie [Brusco, Styx’s manager] determined they needed to have something that represented the records they’ve done in the past — the album cover artwork. But we had to build them to fill this giant screen that Def Leppard supplied. I also did a new blue logo for them, which matches the set piece — cold steel, and rivet steel.

“We changed some stuff up,” Jones continues. “We had to modify the artwork, and the album covers needed some enhancement in terms of the richness of their colors. We beefed them all up and filled out some of the pieces on the sides. For example, The Grand Illusion’s got that whole forest, and that’s now widescreen.”

So is it any wonder we got a great opening night set from the band, despite the hurdles Mother Nature put in the way? Well, not really. Take it from sound master Gary Loizzo: “How awesome was that? They’re such a great live band — they can pull off anything.” It is the Styx way, after all.

We’ll have another show review posted right here the day after Styx perform in West Palm Beach on Thursday, June 25, so stay tuned!