by Mike Mettler

photo by Jason Powell

“It’s very toasty up there,” says Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, after having gone sidestage to watch Tesla play their first opening set of the big summer tour. (Tesla was unable to perform on opening night in Tampa on June 23 because of the 90-minute showtime delay due to inclement weather.) “Tesla had a great set,” Tommy continues. “Right when they go on, you have people standing up with their arms thrusting into the air. They weren’t playing to empty seats either — their fans were there, our fans were there, and Def Leppard’s fans were there. On a three-act bill, for everybody to be there for the first band is really a testament for Tesla and their fans. And they sounded great!”

Things were indeed a bit soupy at the Coral Sky Ampitheatre in West Palm Beach on June 25 — the venue had recently changed back to its original name after being known as the Cruzan Ampitheatre for a number of years — but the three bands were quite cool as they fired on all cylinders for a trio of rousing sets. (Styx plays a full-length solo show at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville tonight before they resume with Tesla and the Leps on Saturday at the Oak Mountain Ampitheatre in Pelham, Alabama.)

During the set change, the men of Styx gathered in between some large gear boxes behind the stage, stretching their limbs and strumming random chords before getting their onstage cue. Tommy harmonizes aloud along with the chorus to Chicago’s classic “25 or 6 to 4,” which is playing over the PA, while ever-agile keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan bobs and weaves in and out of view from behind a tall road case. And then, following the brand-new walk-on music composition titled “Overture” (more on that in a bit), Styx takes the stage for an energetic 54-minute set. Founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young tears through “Miss America,” as Tommy sits on a riser in front of Lawrence Gowan’s spinning keyboard perch, with Lawrence strumming the strings down near the pickups on Tommy’s Les Paul (with additional over-the-shoulder chordal supervision from bassist Ricky Phillips). The crowd remained standing for “Lady,” the song making its strong summertime debut after having been pulled from the truncated Tampa set. And it’s always a powerful site seeing JY, original bassist Chuck Panozzo, Tommy, and Ricky line up left to right in front of Todd Sucherman’s custom drum kit during the hard-driving denouement to “Renegade.”

Joe Elliott, Def Leppard’s lead vocalist, continues to be impressed by his tour mates. “It’s always good to have these guys around because they’re good guys, they’re funny guys, and they’re great musicians to tour with,” Joe says as we attempt to seek shelter from the backstage heat. “It’s kind of like a comfortable pair of shoes! I haven’t seen them in 7 or 8 years, but it’s like 7 or 8 minutes, you know? It’s like nothing had happened, but a lot of stuff has happened! Those guys don’t look any older, which is scary — they must have an elixir of some kind,” he laughs.

Joe feels all three bands fit together on the bill perfectly. “Yeah, I absolutely do,” he nods. “We’re three generations apart, with Tesla in it. We’re like the middle. You can see a growth factor, with the influences passed down from generation to generation. And I think the audience can pick up on that too.”

Tommy concurs. “I think the tour is off to a fantastic start. Everybody’s giving it the thumbs up. The shows have sold really well, and they continue to sell, right up to showtime. It’s nice to be on a tour with such a good buzz — again,” he smiles.

Joe Elliott loves how Styx puts together a show and how deep the band’s catalog goes. “It’s great, it’s really cool. I just saw their set list from the other night, and I’m going, ‘You can’t really argue with that.’” What are the Lep man’s favorite Styx songs? “Ahhhh, ‘Renegade’ for sure! And ‘Miss America,’ which I know they didn’t get to play the other night, but we get it tonight. The Grand Illusion album itself is a great record. I like to think we’re the same kind of way with our songs — it’s hard to pick one. If you’ve only got one or two songs, like Ram Jam with ‘Black Betty’ or Wild Cherry and ‘Play That Funky Music’ — those guys have only one song and that’s it, with all due respect to those bands. Bands like us or Styx, U2, or Bon Jovi — you can put that song listing on a cover without any embarrassment. We all have greatest hits. And you can’t really go wrong with any of them.”

Riding on the tour bus to Jacksonville, Tommy Shaw reflects on Night 2 — or, as he puts it, “Show number 1.5.” Says Tommy, “We had a great time tonight. The audience was on its feet the entire time. We didn’t think it was as hot as the night in Tampa, but, actually, it was right up there heatwise, so we were all sweating pretty good!

“We basically climbed aboard Def Leppard’s tour, and we’re already warmed up from our shows down in the Bahamas,” he continues. “So now we’re merging into their tour, and now it becomes our tour with them. All that said, it was awesome! We had such a great time. We were totally in our comfort zone. And we’re really good at playing on the fly. We really thrive on that sort of thing. Our crew is so good, you never see anybody up there having a fit because someone isn’t trying to figure out what’s going wrong. Before you even get to the side of the stage, they’re already standing there with replacement parts. My battery pack went down in the middle of a song tonight, and by the time I got over there, two of my guys were standing there, and they knew what it was. It takes a lot to rattle us. Once we set things in motion, we’re not stopping until we’re through.”

Besides getting the chance to take in some of Tesla’s opening set, Tommy also got to check out the headliners. “I walked over to listen when Def Leppard were playing ‘Love Bites,’ which might be my favorite song of theirs,” he reflects. “It just reminded of how much I love those guys. They’re always on and so dedicated, and so cool. It’s kind of a déjà vu from 8 years ago. Their music is so good, and they sound so good. Those songs really resonate.”

As mentioned earlier, “Overture” is Styx’s brand-new walk-on music. “It’s new, but it sounds vintage. We’re in a vintage state of mind, I guess, and that music kind of reflects that state of mind,” Tommy explains. “It’s fun. We used all-vintage synthesizers, and more vintage-sounding drums. It only runs about 1 minute and 24 seconds. There are six hits, and then there’s a cue. It goes from a G sharp, and after the sixth hit, we play a Gsus [chord], and then it fades out, and we take over live at that point. It’s intended as an overture, because it’s the beginning of something. And it also sounds like something that could have been on The Grand Illusion.”

So, in other words, you’re heading for the skies?

“Well, we always shoot for the stars,” Tommy chuckles. Two dates into the summer tour, and it’s already one for the ages.

More on-the-spot reports from the road are coming soon to Styxworld, so stay tuned!