Concert Review: Styx Tries Keeping it Fresh

Classic rockers Styx performed a two-night stand at Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City, OR and brought the usual staples and a couple of rarities to their live show.

Tommy Shaw

Tommy Shaw of Styx

The ever-touring band which makes their way to the Pacific Northwest once a year or so has primarily kept the same setlist for at least five years. Pleasantly, the band added a bit of aesthetics to the stage this go-around incorporating more than just a large namesake banner. An upper deck allowed members of the band to move around a bit and ground floor video screens added an element missing from past shows. Confetti littered the audience not once, but twice during the two-song encore.

Chuck P

Styx original bassist Chuck Panozzo

On Friday, Styx opened with fan favorites “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” “Grand Illusion,” “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” and “Lady” before diving back in time performing “Light Up” for the first time in Oregon since the 1970s, according to guitarist and sometimes singer James “J.Y” Young. “Light Up” is the first tract off 1975’s Equinox and showed off classic Styx harmony. It’s a welcome addition to the tour.

The band only played 13 songs but the show was a solid 90 minutes and many songs, which already register well-past the four minute mark, received added solos and extended plays that offered a different approach to their regular roadshow. Keyboardist and singer Lawrence Gowen threw in a great organ-esque solo on “I’m O.K.” and “Too Much Time on my Hands” benefitted from a solid band jam.

Tommy Shaw, some-of-the-time singer and all-the-time guitarist performed solidly throughout the evening and was in fine form for the emotive “Man in the Wilderness” and there were probably a few tears in the audience when it was just Shaw, his vocals and acoustic guitar opening the finely penned “Crystal Ball.” It remains a Styx classic.

Young grabbed vocal duties for “Miss America” a straight-up hard rock song about the fickle nature of fame and while the album version can come across a little stale now, more than 35 years later, the live performance, especially with Young’s biting guitar solo explains why it stays in the set. Styx played five of eight songs from their iconic 1997 album The Grand Illusion.

Styx Bass

Styx bassist Ricky Phillips

Styx last released an album of new material 10 years ago and there doesn’t seem to be plans to write a new one. Their concerts always bring energy and great musicianship but their predictability is overly evident for anyone who has experienced a show in the last five or so years.

Gowen always introduces one of Styx’s best songs and one of the all-time greatest rock songs by playing snippets of songs from other bands like Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and even Elton John. It’s not a stretch to say “Come Sail Away” easily stands on its own and Styx would be better off adding one of their own songs instead of wasting time playing other band’s songs.

Gowan

Styx keyboardist and singer Lawrence Gowen

Regardless, the Styx lineup remains consistent with the addition of Gowan who permanently replaced Dennis DeYoung in 1999, bassist Ricky Phillips who joined in 2003 and drummer Todd Sucherman now nearing 20 years with Styx. Original bassist and founding member Chuck Panozzo makes occasional appearances and played on “Fooling Yourself,” “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade” which closed-out the Friday set. Panozzo has battled health issues for years.

The venue at Chinook Winds is a bit uncomfortable and initially took some of the fun away from the evening. Much of the audience is placed around banquet style tables forcing people to arrange their seats in a manner not conducive to a rock show. Styx felt more like post-meal entertainment at a wedding or some other function.

But once those classic Styx songs get rolling it just becomes all about the music.

Saturday Update: What a difference sitting in the fourth row makes as opposed to the banquet tables at this venue. Styx rocked this show. The band switched out “I’m O.K.” with “Pieces of Eight” and gave another solid performance to the second full house in a row..

Styx Chinook Winds Friday Setlist:

1. Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
2. The Grand Illusion
3. Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
4. Lady
5. Light Up
6. Man in the Wilderness
7. Miss America
8. I’m O.K.
9. Crystal Ball
10. Too Much Time on My Hands
11. Come Sail Away
12. Rockin’ the Paradise
13. Renegade

Styx Chinook Winds Saturday Setlist:

1. Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
2. The Grand Illusion
3. Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
4. Lady
5. Light Up
6. Man in the Wilderness
7. Miss America
8. Crystal Ball
9. Pieces of Eight
10. Too Much Time on My Hands
11. Come Sail Away
12. Rockin’ the Paradise
13. Renegade

Written By: AndrewT

Album Review: Pearl Jam’s Lightning Bolt Reflects the Past and Present

Pearl Jam released Lightning Bolt on Tuesday, their 10th studio album and first in four years. The Seattle-based grunge-rockers chart a bit of new territory on Lightning Bolt and take an almost drastic departure from 2009’s effort Backspacer and much of its predecessors.

Whereas Backspacer and 2006’s self-titled Pearl Jam give an almost immediate satisfying listen with mostly quick-paced songs Lightning Bolt as a whole slows the tempo a bit and offers more substance than the sometimes repetitive guitar chords and loud, 1-2 punch crashing percussion oft displayed on previous albums.

The first three tracts do indeed pick-up right where Backspacer left off with “Getaway” resuming the energy from the last album and the single “Mind Your Manners” is so 1980s punk rock you’d swear it was a cover of a TSOL song. “My Father’s Son” displays Jeff Ament’s bass on display almost as much as singer Eddie Vedder’s vocals.

“Sirens” brings on the breaks and is as emotional as Pearl Jam gets. Vedder’s vocals show desperation and angst in a range from his sweet bass tone to a tenor that brushes right on the cracking point and meshes well into the song. Guitarist Mike McCready adds an equally satisfying solo that floats a bit of pop into a well-crafted hard rock sound. As popular as “Sirens” should be, it’s not necessarily the best song on the album.

The title track brings back an element of punk guitar and along with “Swallowed Whole” helps balance the album with enjoyable, catchy beats that should be stellar live. Stuck between the two is “Infallible” that feels like a deep-album cut and “Pendulum” which sounds like tribal rhythms fused with 1960s guitar.

“Let the Records Play” is a fun song with a solid drum cadence throughout with bluesy guitar work. Pearl Jam is clear in their love of the record album but there could be some commentary on display regarding the current music scene of pushing one single after another instead of allowing DJs to simply let the records play. From a band that used to rule the radio waves, you have to wonder what, if any, airplay Lightning Bolt gets.

“Sleeping by Myself” is well, a sleepy lullaby left off of Vedder’s solo album Ukulele Songs and considering that album had 16 songs, really, what was one more – it’s not a Pearl Jam song. “Yellow Moon” likewise is mundane and serves no real purpose to the album other than to fill space. There’s no catchy hook or melody and just simply exists.

The final song and arguably the best, “Final Days” sidelines drummer Matt Cameron and is Vedder at his dreamy, baritone finest. The reflective tone to his vocals and the background acoustic guitar makes you realize exactly why his campfire delivery works so well in rock and roll.

If anything, Lightning Bolt shows Pearl Jam as mere humans. Guitarist Stone Gossard said in an interview with Billboard that the band is now at the age where relationships are 20 and 30 years long, parents are getting older and loved ones are dying – Vedder lost a friend in 2012 to an accidental drowning.

Perhaps the pace and content – faith and mortality – of Lightning Bolt is more reflective of anyone’s response (how about their fan base?) to hitting middle age and slowing down a bit, taking a pause, assessing life and then returning with gusto. Vedder endured a back injury last year that left him with temporary nerve damage requiring rehabilitation. The injury also delayed his solo tour of the United States.

Whatever the future holds, Pearl jam is going nowhere. Vedder admits that music a young man’s game and the band needs to stay young – music allows them to do that. Pearl Jam’s efforts in the 90s to skirt fame took a while but they, along with most other rock acts that have been together for more than two albums, can now take comfort in knowing who they are and march forward with what they know best – making music. Grade: B

Lightning Bolt Tracks:

  1. Getaway
  2. Mind Your Manners
  3. My Father’s Son
  4. Sirens
  5. Lightning Bolt
  6. Infallible
  7. Pendulum
  8. Swallowed Whole
  9. Let the Records Play
  10. Sleeping by Myself
  11. Yellow Moon
  12. Future Days

Written By: AndrewT

Album Review: Rush Hemispheres on SACD

Hemispheres, Rush’s last album featuring a sidelong title track, is the latest to receive Audio Fidelity’s remastered touch on the SACD format. It was originally scheduled for release in August but got it’s due last week, not to coincidentally when Vapor Trails received new life with a complete remix overhaul.

Hemispheres, released in 1978, in many respects represents the final sound of what would define 1970s Rush. The album represented the third and last of the band’s concept albums that included one song divided into sections. (Rush took another 34 years to release a concept album, Clockwork Angels, but without the side long title track.)

Additionally on Hemispheres, Geddy Lee’s voice not only dropped several octaves but the raw bite that likely led Globe & Mail to describe his vocals as “the damned howling in Hades” disappeared with 1980’s Permanent Waves. A rather harsh critique of a voice that served the band well, however, the move to a lower register certainly gets credit for the band’s continued existence and exceptional play today.

Hemispheres on SACD does not have the golden moments that come with the remastered version of Vapor Trails, however as with all of Audio Fidelity’s remastered albums whether on gold disc or the SACD format, the nuances exist.

The best way to describe experiencing an Audio Fidelity remastered album is like looking through a window and not noticing the accumulated film until someone cleans it. Lee’s bass thumps a little brighter, Alex Lifeson’s guitar solos sound a bit cleaner and Neil Peart’s cymbals and high hats come across crisp and sharp. But really you’d never know unless both albums were compared side-by-side.

During the beginning jam of “Cygnus X-1 Book II” there’s a subtle cymbal crash that sounds like slightly shaken keys that may go unnoticed on the original disk but once you hear it through the SACD version, it’s not lost anymore. The same can be said for the birds chirping on “The Trees.” It’s these peculiarities that emerge on the remastered version that often get overlooked on the original recording. However, with today’s modern equalizers you can easily tweak the bass and treble and other frequencies to produce the more ethereal sounds hiding thanks to the inferior recording capabilities of the past.

Hemispheres on SACD is numbered and like all of Audio Fidelity’s Rush releases will sell out. It is the third straight Rush album reproduced in the SACD format and second one this year – Counterparts was released in March. The gold-plated remastered CDs must be too expensive as the last gold Rush album was Signals in 2007.

The Audio Fidelity album is more of a collectible thanks to the limited edition nature and any Hemispheres fan should be happy with the original. Regardless, expect more, if not eventually, all Rush albums to find their way on the SACD format or whatever else Audio Fidelity dreams up next.

Tracks:
1. Cygnus X-1 Book II Hemispheres
a. Prelude
b. Apollo/Dionysus
c. Armageddon
d. Cygnus
e. The Sphere
2. Circumstances
3. The Trees
4. La Villa Strangiato
Written By: AndrewT

Concert Review: Pet Shop Boys Celebrate First Ever Stop in Portland

The Pet Shop Boys stopped in Portland for the first time in their notable 30-plus year career on Friday night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and celebrated keyboardist Chris Lowe’s birthday in style with a 23-song set that lasted 100 minutes but was so engaging and entertaining it felt like half that.

The British pop duo who, like many synth-heavy bands, found fame in the 1980s with hits like “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” and “It’s a Sin” dazzled with a spectacular lights and laser show. At times the evening felt much less concert and more of an almost psychedelic musical complete with an orchestra.

Touring their 12th album Electric, the show was stripped down as far as gear from past US tours that visited primarily major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The stage displayed a bare appearance save for two see-through video screens (one featured a circuit board pattern) and a very elaborate-looking keyboard. The purest would find no drums or guitars.

Much of the Boys’ music consisted of pre-recorded tracks, which the group readily admits is a part of their act, with Lowe playing the major chorus on keyboards and Neil Tennant on vocals. In fact the opening song, “Axis,” the first tract off Electric was thoroughly sampled until Tennant and Lowe appeared from backstage to play “One More Chance.”

The artistry to their music is clearly at the forefront. You’d be hard-pressed to find another band utilizing the amount of lights, strobe lights, lasers and fog as Pet Shop Boys incorporate into their show. Tennant and Lowe were often accompanied on stage by two interpretive dancers wearing outlandishly cool outfits with even more extravagant head wear like bull skulls, bright orange pom-poms and baskets.

Tennant did a solid job on vocals and performed effortlessly through every song. The duo often sported arresting outfits changing often during the show. Tennant and Lowe first emerged looking like human garland and then later with their dancers wore similar bull-skull head wear.  At one point their clothes appeared florescent seemingly changing color at will.

Pet Shop Boys didn’t waste any time showing why they propelled to the top of the charts playing “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money),” third on the night though it felt abbreviated from the original. “Fugitive” a B-side from the 2006’s Fundamental sampled a great night club beat, and “Integral,” from the same album and “Leaving,” the first track from last year’s Elysium show the Boys never forgot their 80s roots.

Friday’s setlist peppered the hits with B-sides, deeper album cuts and four tracks from Electric. “Suburbia” held up strong after nearly 30 years with running fog machines competing with Portland’s natural autumn occurrence.

“I’m Not Scared” brought a hypnotizing display of lasers polka dotting the theater and entire audience in an almost 3D transcendent experience. “Love etc.” from 2009’s Yes featured Tennant and Lowe in an almost uproarious skit with both up-right in separate beds, complete with pillows, and their white sheets –up to their necks – acting as a projector screen that showed video of their bodies moving around in their sleep.

At times, the canned bass line dominated the rest of the music, especially on “Fluorescent” when Tennant’s vocals were hardly understandable and the popular “West End Girls” failed to impress as did “Miracles.” Despite the sometimes overpowering backing tracks the entire show proved to be an unparalleled mix of a concert/musical/theatrical experience.

PSB certainly didn’t forget what propelled them to fame once Tennant said, “OK Portland, here we go” and the first set closed with the crowd jumping to their feet for feet “It’s a Sin,” “Domino Dancing” and their well-done cover of “Always on My Mind.” The encore included a cover of the Village People’s “Go West” and the fantastic techno-influenced “Vocal” off of Electric.

Pet Shop Boys may have fallen off the music radar in the United States but the duo is a strong force in their native United Kingdom and have released five albums since 2002 and a host of compilations over the years. They’ve never strayed from their synth and keyboard-heavy brand of pop dance music – the backbone of Electric – and continue to create rhythmical charming melodies.

Pet Shop Boys Portland (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall) Setlist:

  1. Axis
  2. One More Chance
  3. Opportunities
  4. Meaning of the Future
  5. Fugitive
  6. Integral
  7. I wouldn’t Normally do this kind of thing
  8. Suburbia
  9. I’m Not Scared
  10. Fluorescent
  11. West End Girls
  12. Somewhere
  13. Leaving
  14. Thursday
  15. Love, Etc.
  16. I Get Excited
  17. Rent
  18. Miracles
  19. It’s a Sin
  20. Domino Dancing
  21. Always on my Mind
  22. Go West
  23. Vocal

Written By: AndrewT

Album Review: Rush Vapor Trails – Remaster

Rush triumphantly returned, after a five-year absence, in 2002 with Vapor Trails, a personal and emotional album that at times expressed drummer Neil Peart’s rise from the ashes after the death of his daughter and wife in 1997.

To the untrained ear and more pointedly to the Rush fan, there was little wrong with this album. Who’d a thunk it when Rush announced years ago a desire to remix Vapor Trails. In an interview with that magazine, singer/bassist Geddy Lee said, “The mixes were really loud and brash. The mastering job was harsh and distorted.”

On Tuesday the Vapor Trails remaster effort came to fruition.

Listening to Vapor Trails – Original it’s hard to tell just how muddy the contribution from all three band members is. The remix reveals the true nature of the vocals, bass, guitar work and percussion as each stand out on their own, then come together as one, to produce the final intention of the Vapor Trails album.

The whole album, but especially Lee’s vocal, sounds like the recording was performed through a trumpet mute. Vapor Trails (Remixed) breaths and is one of the best examples of what remixing an album accomplishes.

Peart takes charge on track opener “One Little Victory” as if to say “I’m Back” but for much of the original album his work comes across as timid and more comfortable in the shadows, almost a re-thinking of whether he was ready to return to the limelight. The new mix shows Peart with fashionable in your face percussion with lots of poignant play finally emerging – the “Lost Sounds” if you will. It easy to recognize the remix’s contribution to Peart with how cutting the snare and cymbals emerge from the muck.

Guitarist Alex Lifeson probably fared the best on the original but the clean feel to the album really allows his guitar work to bust through. His solo on “Earthshine” was always simplistically elegant but all the production grime from the original is wiped away.

If you are intimately familiar with Vapor Trails – Original listen to it again in its entirety and then listen to Vapor Trails – Remixed. A number of elements to the songs emerge and it’s then that the listener understands just how under-produced or over-produced (depending on how you look at it) the original was: Check out these Easter eggs:

  • Keyboards on Sweet Miracle around the 2:20 mark
  • Guitar solo on “One Little Victory” at the 4:18 mark
  • Bass on “Ghost Rider” at the :45 mark
  • Sound effects on “Ghost Rider” after the 4:00 mark
  • Guitar solo on “Ceiling Unlimited” at the 4:00 mark

“Out of the Cradle,” the album’s last track, is almost completely made-over and its new life makes this track a hidden gem.

Vapor Trails-Original was never a bad album and stood out well on its own as another fine effort by Rush. In fact, below is my review of the album in May 2002 for the Orange County Register:

Long dismissed as irrelevant in mainstream music, Rush continues to plunge ahead. After a five-year absence to allow drummer and lyricist Neil Peart to recover from the deaths of his wife and daughter, the power trio releases yet another gem. But heed this warning: Vapor Trails does not continue in the same vein as the fresh “One Little Victory,” released last month as the first single. The band not only has created a new sound, but has managed to blend a little bit of ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s Rush into the 13-song effort. The melodic jam-tempos of “Secret Tough” and “Peaceable Kingdom,” the dreamy, almost whimsical “Ghost Rider” and the reflective approach to “Sweet Miracle” explore adventurous territory proving the band has a new directive. Indeed, Rush devotees may scratch their heads, but by the third listen the fire will be brighter than ever. Grade: A-.  

Rush completely under represented this album on the Vapor Trails tour in 2002 playing just four songs off an album with 13 tracks and most were worthy of the live show. After a side-by-side comparison Vapor Trails-Remixed far surpasses the original and offers such a new experience Rush fans can expect the Vapor Trails – Remixed tour.

Wishful thinking.

Grade: A

Written By: AndrewT