By John Johnson, photos by Chaz Dykes of Chaz D Photography
The SOUND started 2024 off with a bang. The first Friday of the New Year, sweet, sweet sounds filled the air in Clearwater with the music of 38 Special.and classic rock staple, STYX. The evening had warmed up a tad to a bearable 65 degrees as the mostly middle aged (and above) crowd filed into the arena for the first show of the new year. Hitting the stage relatively on time, .38 Special started off appropriately enough with “Rocking into the Night”. Southern rock with a pop sensibility isn’t exactly a common combination these days, but it’s one .38 Special consistently perseveres at since debuting in the late 70’s.
Originally helmed by Donnie Van Zandt (younger brother to the late Skynyrd singer Ronnie), lead vocals are now aptly handled by long time member Don Barnes. These “Wild-Eyed Southern Boys” kept right on taking everyone “Back Where You Belong,” or perhaps even more fittingly, “Back To PARADISE” with their infectious recipe for creating and performing catchy pop hits with a twang. Barnes frequently shared the spotlight with keyboardist/vocalist Bobby Capps, drummer Gary Moffatt, bassist Barry Dunaway and guitarist Jerry Riggs, all of whom are accomplished performers properly carrying on 38 Special’s extensive legacy. A few highly memorable ditties from said legacy were “Teacher, Teacher”, “Somebody like you”, “Fantasy girl” and “Second Chance”. The latter being sung by keyboardist Capps with crowd pleasing efficiency. They rounded out their 14 song setlist with “Caught up in you” and “Hold on loosely” and brought the packed house to their feet.
The lights under the manta ray shaped canopy arose and the attendees scurried to grab another beverage and to dispense of the previous one. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see a show at Ruth Eckerd’s gem of an amphitheater, do yourself a favor and grab tickets to an upcoming event. They’ve upgraded the viewing experience with two giant monitors on either side of the stage. This will definitely add to the visual experience, but I feel they may need to add two more in the back of the venue for the lawn folk. If I were to have any complaint whatsoever, it’d be that whoever works the cameras try and keep up with the banter on stage, or which musician is performing a solo.
The house lights flickered, then went dark and the audience erupted. STYX, a band that has been around for 5 decades was about to attack the stage once again. This rock radio friendly group was the subject of my first journalistic “gig”. Being a reporter and illustrator for my junior high school newspaper, I had the pleasure of interviewing a few members via speaker phone back in, well, a few years back to say the least. I digress.
The 5 piece band, that originally started in Chicago in 1972 and named after a river in hades, was about to put on a helluva show. See what I did there? A palpable sense of anticipation filled the air, and STYX burst onto the stage with a powerful rendition of “To Those”, a song off of 2021’s “Crash of the Crown”. This fledgling tune was abruptly followed by classics “Blue Collar Man” and “Grand Illusion”. The iconic group currently consists of multi-instrumentalist Ricky Phillips (the Baby’s, Bad English and Coverdale/Page) on bass, the underrated Todd Sucherman on drums (for close to 30 years now), theatrical frontman Lawrence Gowan on lead vocals and keyboards (replacing founder Dennis DeYoung in 1999), the ageless Tommy Shaw on vocals and guitar, and the only remaining original member James “JY” Young on guitar and vocals. Gowan effortlessly commanded the stage throughout the night, his vocals soaring with power and emotion as he kicked and pranced around the other members when not piloting his revolving keyboard stand.
Whether belting out the iconic chorus of “Come Sail Away” or delivering a soul-stirring rendition of “Lady,” Gowan’s performance was nothing short of mesmerizing. The timeless band’s energy remained unwavering during the one hour and forty minute spectacle. Joined on stage for several tunes, was Florida resident, co-founder and bassist Chuck Panozzo. Panozzo, who continues to live with HIV, came onstage to expand the group into a superior sextet. The still blonde coifed Shaw unleashed blistering solos and infectious riffs that ignited the congregation, while the rock-solid rhythm section of Phillips and Sucherman provided a stalwart foundation for STYX’s dynamic and unmistakable sound. Shaw, who is 70 years young, was understandably called out by Gowan for discovering STYX’s fountain of youth, but did not appear on the monitor during this accolade. See my “only complaint” above. Another member who has clearly drank from said fountain, JY (at 74) growled a personal favorite of mine “Miss America” and shredded the solo as well. The band’s impeccable harmonies and instrumental prowess were on full display during epic tracks like “Crystal Ball”, “Fooling Yourself”, “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Rocking the PARADISE”. The 18-song hit list was peppered with a few more current, less known numbers, but it didn’t appear to slow the momentum one bit. As the concert reached its crescendo, an emphatic roar of applause filled the brisk air as Styx delved into their final songs. The encore, comprising of the iconic “Mr. Roboto” and the everlasting anthem “Renegade,” left the audience exhilarated and yearning for more.
Both of these American musical icons proved once again that age is a non-issue and playing actual instruments is still a much-preferred method to pleasing a large audience. That being said, go Find, Hear, See and Support live music.
(Editors footnote In 2021, guitarist Will Evankovichwas officially announced as the seventh member of Styx )