Styx @ Rimrock Auto Arena
On September 14th, Billings saw the return of legendary prog-rock band Styx. Styx has been making music since the early 70s, and chances are if you’ve listened to classic-rock radio for longer than twenty minutes, you’re probably familiar with at least a few of their songs. Turn on any music player manufactured before 1978, and chances are Styx music will spontaneously pour from the speaker. After I finished work on Friday, I burned rubber out to the Rimrock Auto Arena (figuratively speaking—my four-door sedan can’t burn much rubber) to see the band for my first time.
There was a healthy-sized crowd inside the arena; at a guess, the place was maybe one-fifth capacity, which means maybe around two thousand people were attending. A large part of the crowd was well into middle age, and polo shirts and “comfort blend” fabrics abounded. However, a sizeable chunk of the audience was younger, maybe mid-twenties, all the way down to young teenagers. Watching everybody, regardless of age, singing along with the band’s hits, proves that music is a timeless thing.
Before the show started, Hannah Shaw, platinum-haired, tattooed representative from Styx’s pet project, fundraising group “Rock to the Rescue,” took the stage to announce the fundraiser raffle Styx was sponsoring. Any audience member could spend ten dollars on a raffle ticket and potentially take home a guitar signed by the entire band. All money went to the Montana AIDS Project. People from the group walked through the crowd all night, collecting money and giving out tickets.
The stage itself was centered on the east end of the arena floor, an understated affair, considering Styx’s history as a theatrical arena-rock band. Banks of speakers bracketed the stage, hanging from the complex, multicolored lighting rig in place above the stage. Sixteen huge speakers, crowned with eight amps, occupied the back of the stage on either side of the massive drum kit. Four short flights of steps let up to a banner depicting what looked like a Central American step pyramid, emblazoned with the band’s logo.
The audience cheered when the band took the stage around 8 PM. There had been no opening act; the only warning the band was coming was that the classic rock piped into the arena got louder. Ever the savvy concertgoer, I stoppered my ears with the pair of industrial earplugs I keep with me for all such events. All the aging rockers definitely looked the part—each wore slim-cut jackets and black pants that all looked painted on. The band launched into “Blue Collar Man,” and ran through a list of hits that not only did everybody seem to know, but everybody seemed to enjoy. I couldn’t figure out if the band was being canny and playing only their radio hits, or if all their songs ended up radio hits at some point. I’m pretty sure it was the former, but the band’s been around long enough that it could have been the latter.
There have been some complaints about the band’s lineup since Dennis DeYoung is no longer a member, but Tommy Shaw was a suitable lead singer in Dennis’s absence. At least I think it was Tommy Shaw; from where I was sitting, all I could make out was a lot of blond hair, a guitar, and some tight pants, so it may actually have been Sheryl Crow. If anything, keyboardist Lawrence Gowan was the real star of the show; his coffin-sized keyboards were boxed with what looked like stainless steel, and mounted on a dais and turntable that he could spin if he wanted. He played the keyboards while walking in a circle, while spinning the keyboards around, and even standing behind them and playing them upside down—any way a keyboard can be played, Lawrence Gowan did it. Not only that, when was called upon to sing some of the songs, he strutted and vamped around the stage, doing what looked like a fair impression of AC/DC lead signer Brian Johnson.
The band played one encore, and afterward, came out on stage again to hand out guitar picks and toss drumsticks into the crowd. I’ve always seen giving out little pieces of band memorabilia like that as a classy move, since anybody can buy a shirt (in this case, there were two t-shirt stands), but if the band’s handing things out, then a few lucky people can claim that they got something straight from the band, not just the merchandise stand. It makes it that much more special.
All in all, the show last night was a mellow, upbeat affair that let out a very reasonable 9:15 PM. It was my first time seeing Styx, and my first time seeing a concert in the Rimrock Auto Arena since the new roof was built. I’m not sure if I’d see the band again, but it was worth it this time, if only so I can say I saw one of the biggest prog-rock bands of the last thirty years.
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