story & photo by Mike Mettler
Yep, it happened again.
Almost 2 years to the day after Styx played an improvised acoustic set in the dark at the Sunset Center in Carmel, California, the power went out in the same venue once again at 9:23 p.m. Pacific time last night, January 16, just a few minutes before the band was about to take the stage to commence their second set of the evening.
Instead, after a brief delay, Styx came out and played a 40-minute, created-on-the-spot, fully unplugged set — as in, a set with no microphones and no amplification, just the power of their voices and acoustic instruments to carry them. This truly unique, truly amazing set included “Pieces of Eight,” “Lights,” “Boat on the River,” “The Greater Good,” “Khedive,” “High Enough,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Girls With Guns,” “Come Sail Away,” and “Renegade,” the latter being a live debut of the special “down home” way the band harmonizes on a key portion of their usual set-closer in guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw’s dressing room before every show.
The signs for the blackout to come were already in place as treacherous weather had been plaguing much of California proper the past few days. In fact, the power went out for almost 5 minutes in the Sunset Center during soundcheck earlier yesterday afternoon around 4:31 p.m., smack dab in the middle of a run-through of “Locomotive,” a key track from The Mission (which the band is rehearsing in advance of the album’s debut played-in-full performance in Las Vegas at The Pearl at The Palms on January 20). With only some lighting effects aglow behind him and the rest of the band onstage, Tommy joked, “You just ruined our gag for the show!”
The band even made a few references to the previous blackout gig of January 18, 2017 during the first set itself. “We actually have electricity tonight!” Tommy said on more than one occasion — well, he was right about that point for the first full hour of the gig, anyway. . .
But as soon as the lights went out for real last night, it was all hands on deck backstage, as both band and venue representatives immediately checked with the local authorities to see if the power would be coming back anytime soon (it still hasn’t, as of this posting) and that the safety of everyone in the building was accounted for above everything else. (Unfortunately, drum tech Paul Carrizzo was stuck on the elevator between the stage floor and the dressing-room floor for about 45 minutes before the fire department could get him out, but he was absolutely a-ok when I spoke with him in person after the show outside, standing next to the band and crew buses during loadout.)
Once it was determined that there were no imminent fire hazards and that the safest option was to keep the audience in the building all together rather than sending anyone outside to fumble around in the pitch darkness, band and crew huddled to figure out what could be played. The phrase “haven’t we been here before” ran through my mind as Tommy and keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan stood face-to-face in the dimly lit area between the elevator bank and the stage itself (lit by the backup-generated safety lights, that is). “I could even take a stab at ‘Mr. Roboto’!” Gowan offered at one point, with a certain gleam in his eye. (Ahh, if only. . .!)
The rest of the band — co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, bassist Ricky Phillips, and drummer Todd Sucherman, in addition to special guest guitarist/vocalist Will Evankovich — soon sidled up to Tommy and Lawrence to see what could realistically be done on such short notice. Production manager Brian Wong grabbed a blank piece of paper and a Sharpie and said, “Okay, what are we doing?”
A number of song ideas were thrown around before the bulk of the above-noted set was locked in, and bodies quickly scampered down two flights of stairs for a brief vocal warm-up on the harmonies of “High Enough” in the dressing room, centered around Lawrence at the piano in the room. (He would soon play on a black piano that was already onstage, different from the mini spinner he played during the 2017 blackout.) Meanwhile, Todd found the perfect surface to use his drum brushes on — namely, a mostly full pizza box from local eatery Mountain Mike’s. (Once the set wrapped up, Todd opened the box and offered the remaining slices to the crowd down in the front row.)
After the truly magical set finished, Styx went downstairs to towel off and change, and they were in a combined state of excitement, relief, wonder, and bemusement. “It’s unbelievable! Can you imagine the Vegas odds on this happening again?” noted Ricky. I asked Tommy how he felt, and he grinned and said, “How cool was that? It was fun! And how about ‘The Greater Good’? Man, that was f---ing great!” When I then observed that “Girls With Guns” wasn’t initially planned for as far as I could recall, he added, “I wouldn’t have done that if they hadn’t asked for it!” JY chimed in, “I think my booming voice always comes in handy in moments like these,” followed by a hearty chuckle. For his part, Will (who has, in fact, played acoustic versions of songs like “High Enough,” “Renegade,” and “Girls With Guns” with Tommy before) observed, “I’m just happy my hands remembered the chords! It was like MTV Unplugged out there, if anybody even remembers that show. . .” (We do indeed, but thiswas a truly unplugged set from top to bottom!)
So, if there’s one clear takeaway from this once-in-a-lifetime show (or is that technically twice-in-a-lifetime?), it must be this: Neither rain nor sleet nor radio silence-slash-no power will stop Styx from doing what they do best. Stay tuned to see what live hurdles they vanquish next.