Styx and Don Felder up the ante on fun during their second annual residency at the Venetian in Las Vegas.
text & photo by Mike Mettler
“To be able to go out there and have fun like that is such a gift.” —Tommy Shaw
Sequels can be dicey propositions. For every rare, picture-perfect Godfather Part II, the follow-up highway is littered with scores of failed attempts at recapturing the lightning in a bottle that made the original something unique and special in the first place. To borrow a line, many of those who tried for a second shot at gold messed around and got lost.
Which is why I’m more than happy to report that the two-gig opening weekend of Styx and Don Felder’s five-show Renegades in the Fast Lane 2 residency (a.k.a. RITFL2) that commenced on January 26 and 27, 2018 at the Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas is the best sequel-sequence you’ll see and hear anywhere this year, hands down.
As someone who bore witness to the entirety of January 2017’s inaugural Styx–Felder Venetian run, I instantly felt how the energy level in the room this past weekend had been ramped up a few extra notches by both performers and attendees alike. And, to a man, the seven (count ’em) musicians onstage responsible for bringing those waves of absolute joy to the ever increasingly raucous and appreciative (and bigger!) audiences felt it too. “This is the most fun I’ve had in the last 10 years,” enthused Don “Fingers” Felder backstage following Night 1. Concurred Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy “Bleepin” Shaw with a satisfied grin, “As crazy as the world is these days, to be able to go out there and have fun like that is such a gift. Any day we get to do this and get the kind of response we do out there onstage is a good day.”
And now, after a few days off, Styx and Don Felder are collectively revving up to tackle the triple-threat of shows ahead at the Venetian, with the final trio of RITFL2 gigs set to commence tonight, January 31, and then wrap up over the weekend on February 2 and 3. There may only be a few tickets left — though when I last checked in at the Venetian box office, there weren’t that many! — so if you’re eager for action and hot for the game, head over to our TOUR page to find out if you’ve still got a shot at seeing how it all goes down in person.
A press conference was scheduled for noon on the 26th, the first show day. Before the Q&A segment got underway, the band played a brief 15-minute set consisting of “Gone Gone Gone,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” and “Hotel California.” As he introduced “Too Much Time,” Tommy noted, “We dedicate this one to Jimmy Fallon and Paul Rudd. In a moment, you might see why.” Before turning the official proceedings over to the press about 15 minutes after that, manager Charlie Brusco quite rightly declared, “This is one band, and they operate as one band.” To properly face the press and the photographers on hand, all seven gentlemen in that singular RITFL2 band perched on black stools set down across the stage: namely, keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips, drummer Todd Sucherman, co-founding bassist Chuck Panozzo, co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, and the aforementioned guitarist/vocalist Don Felder, and guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw.
For his part, Chuck marveled at being back in Sin City for Round 2: “Sometimes I have to pinch myself and go, ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s the culmination of over 40 years of touring. And nobody does a show like we do in Las Vegas.” When asked how this year’s residency would differ from last year’s, Tommy pointed out how a few already well-received songs from the band’s triumphant 2017-released new album The Mission had since been incorporated into the Vegas set (four of them overall, in fact). Ricky then added, “You think people don’t want to hear any of the new stuff — only the hits. But what we’ve been finding with The Mission is that we’re getting a huge response to the new songs we’re playing from it, with people actually singing along with the choruses. And that’s been a nice, positive feeling that follows through to the rest of the set.”
One thing that was clear early on during the two rehearsal days prior to that evening’s first show was how everyone involved already had a shared shorthand for most of the entries in the 19-song set that the five, six, and sometimes all seven bandmembers played on, as opposed to how they all worked on their own over the holidays the year before to get the set details together since they essentially had to start from scratch. “I could tell right away how comfortable everybody in Styx felt playing my tracks,” Don observed backstage after the first rehearsal about the six Eagles songs he fronted in the set. “And since we had all that down together,” nodded Tommy, picking up the thread, “we then began working on other things we all could be doing out there onstage, because Don lovesdoing that stuff. And so do we.”
A new wrinkle that came out of one organic “what if” scenario discussed on the first afternoon of rehearsal was — SPOILER ALERT! — the idea for both Don and Tommy to walk off the stage and down into the audience shortly after the start of their dueling guitar solos on “Hotel California,” and then play to each other across the aisles of the center orchestra section. Don would go first, walking down the steps positioned at stage left with his white double-neck guitar in tow, while Tommy would soon follow suit with his guitar in hand at stage right, each of them stopping about 10 or so rows up their respective aisle. Even with only a few people in the room at the time they first tested the idea out, it soon became apparent that the audience would be treating this special moment as if they were watching a tennis match — swiveling their heads from side to side depending on which guitarist would be playing the licks during any given moment, then pointing to the other one facing them across the way for their response. Each player would eventually head back up onstage from the same side they started down to meet in the middle and finish the duel front and center.
Other related logistics for this sequence would have to be worked out in short order, such as “Could we get a spotlight to follow each performer as they come offstage, then highlight both of them back-and-forth during their tag-team solo breaks?” and “Who’s going to run interference and block the pathway both down and back, once the audience realizes Don and Tommy are standing right in front of them?” Both men were bemused by the fact that, because the audience would be focused on Don coming down amongst them first, many of them wouldn’t even realize Tommy was doing the same thing on his side until Don pointed across the aisle at him for his turn at cutting heads. During the press conference event’s “Hotel California” gambit, I watched with some amusement of my own as Tommy stood right behind a photographer seated at the end of the first row on his side who was totally facing his lens towards Don before he realized the Styxman was even there — and by that point, Tommy had already made his way up the aisle.
Many concertgoers felt the “Hotel Walk ’N Jam” (as I’m calling it) was one of the main highlights of the show — yours truly included. Me, I swapped aisle sides from where I was watching the show on those first two nights so I could see each axeman do their thing right in front of me before I headed down to the front to see how it all ultimately played out centerstage.
The 110-minute RITFL2 set’s other highlights are quite voluminous, to say the least. The collective harmonies on “Seven Bridges Road” never cease to be spine-chilling —“How can five voices make it sound like ten people are singing?” wondered longtime Styx radio liaison Terry Gibson on more than one occasion. “Radio Silence” shows the raw power of The Mission material in action, while JY’s elegiac lead vocals on “Light Up” and Chuck’s signature bass break during “Fooling Yourself” keep the party rocking, to borrow a line from Don — not to mention the additional guitar muscle Monsieur Felder brings to “Miss America,” which culminates with Todd’s furiously intense drumming denouement — as well as Lawrence’s sly Phantom of the Opera references before the always uplifting “Come Sail Away.” By the time the sidestage cannons pop off to spew billowing streams of multicolored confetti across the stage and audience alike for the one-two punch of the “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Renegade” encore, you really do feel that the night has gone by way, waaaaay too fast.
So. . . umm, is it too early to book the room for RITFL3? I suppose you can check out anytime you like, but the jig is up and the news is out: a third go-round of this residency is most definitely wanted, man. Let’s all ride it again together in 2019, shall we?