The stalwart Styx guitarist/vocalist talks up his recent solo turn in Cleveland playing alongside the Contemporary Youth Orchestra with a little help from his friends, Will Evankovich and Liza Grossman.

by Mike Mettler

photo by Jason Powell

By all accounts, Tommy Shaw’s “Sing for the Day!” solo turn with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) at Waetjen Auditorium on the Cleveland State University campus in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 27 was a rousing success. Your humble Styxologist was present for all of the rehearsals as well as the show itself, and I can report firsthand that the night was as blissful as everyone has been saying in the socials. “Wow, that was fantastic!” Tommy exclaimed with a grin not long after he came offstage at the end of the show just a little before 11 p.m., and who could argue with that in-the-moment sentiment?

From the moving orchestral flourishes that opened the night with “Overture” to the perfect blend of artist, CYO, and chorus on a fully re-imagined “Blue Collar Man” to the sweet banjo accompaniment leading “I'll Be Coming Home” to the moving “duel” Tommy had with returning alumni violinist Lavinia Pavlish on “Renegade,” the SFTD show delivered something for everyone, on all cylinders. Sometimes, the mix was so good it brought to mind the way The Moody Blues were so perfectly in sync with the London Symphony Orchestra on their benchmark 1967 release, Days of Future Passed.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here, in a Styxworld exclusive, Tommy, his musical director and production partner Will Evankovich, and CYO principal conductor/founder Liza Grossman all share their thoughts on the evening’s indelible moments of magic.

Tommy Shaw: We’re still kind of floating in the afterglow of the CYO show. It was so much bigger and more everlasting than any of us imagined it would be. We were all so immersed in the work of it — the preparation, getting all the arrangements right, and making all the changes that kept elevating it.

Will Evankovich (guitars, mandolin, vocals, and SFTD music director): Working with Liza Grossman and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra was an amazing experience unlike any I have had in the past. Tommy and I sailed our boats on what was an ocean of sound, ebbing and flowing. When you negotiate this symbiotic relationship of playing with an orchestra, the end result is remarkable. We were left saying, “Wow, did that really just happen?” I hope we have the opportunity to do it again very soon.

Tommy: We were all doing the prep work in separate places — Will in California, me on the road with Styx, and the CYO in Cleveland, along with our arranger, Stefan Podell. There was a lot of preparation that went on, all of it remotely. We all took it very seriously, and we kept tweaking it and tweaking it, right up until the day of show. There were lots of last-minute notes.

Liza Grossman (CYO principal conductor and founder): I thought the whole night was incredible. The vibe was great, the kids were on it, and I felt very connected to Tommy and Will. And I was in love with the chorus too! I never heard them sing like that before.

Tommy: Liza Grossman is one incredible woman. She’s a pretty tough taskmaster — but you have to be, to keep the discipline required to pull something like that off.

This is a youth symphony, and it was amazing to me to see how talented they all were. I knew it beforehand, but then I got to see it again as it happened, just how mature that youth orchestra is.

From the very beginning of the night, before we even walked out onstage, Jason Powell [Styx's assistant tour manager and Tommy's tour manager for the Cleveland show] got an ovation. We heard that from behind the doors we were waiting to go through to go onstage and make our entrance, so we got the feeling this was going to be a friendly audience — and it was!

The minute we kicked it off, it just took on a whole new energy that was even higher than what we’d been experiencing at the rehearsals. And it went by so fast! In a flash, what had taken 6 months to prepare just went by.

There were some high points. It was all really wonderful, but things like “The Night Goes On” [originally from the 1995 Shaw Blades album, Hallucination] was a surprise to me, because it’s this simple little song, but it really stood out for me.

“High Enough” [from 1990’s Damn Yankees] really came off great. “Come Again,” [also from Damn Yankees], with the violin solos by [CYO concertmaster] Alex Ikezawa and Lavinia Pavlish, and “Renegade,” with Lavinia — those were just so much fun. You really got to see the cherry on the top of the orchestra with those soloists. To have Lavinia come back after 10 years was really inspiring for all the members of the orchestra to see there’s life after CYO, but it always stays with you. Oh, Lavinia! Her soul and her love of music and performing still shines incredibly bright, and it was the final stage of the launch into the stratosphere that this show was.

We also did something that happened before the first show 10 years ago — Jeanne [Tommy’s wife] came up and gave the orchestra a pep talk: “You’re going to be showing your children this show, because it’s being recorded for television [for AXS TV], so don’t be the person thinking, ‘Why didn’t I get into it more?’ Don’t leave anything on the table. Express yourself, and get the joy into it that you might be holding back for one reason or another.” They took it to heart, and they all delivered.

I can’t wait to get into the mixes and put the show up on the board to see what we’ve got. Right now, to me, it was just an ambient thing I could hear while I was in the middle of performing it, so we’re gonna really sit down and make sure it sounds right for the television show and for the Blu-ray. [At present, plans are for AXS TV to air the show next January. As soon as Styxworld gets further information regarding specific broadcast dates and home release options, we’ll post them here, so stay tuned.]

My favorite song of the evening? “Blue Collar Man.” It was more epic than I ever anticipated. The choral group, tympani, the dynamics... all unforgettable.

The CYO show was one of those unforgettable life experiences that we really did not have time to do, because we were all busy. We were really booked up. But we put it in the schedule and we said, “We’re going to make this happen.” Everybody found the time to do it — and we’re so glad we did. So, thank you, Liza Grossman, for once again inviting us to do something we really didn’t have time to do. And that’s a good life lesson, I think. We’ll all be glad about this show forever.

If you’d like to find out more about Liza Grossman’s story to learn how she got involved in conducting Styx, what she did to prepare for the recent orchestral shows in Nashville and Cleveland, and what her future plans for working with the band are, you can read all about it in my weekly Styxology column by becoming a Styx Lounge member today. See how you can do so by clicking here.