Live Review: Styx and Yes Launch Summer Tour on 4th of July

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July 4, 2011 – There are a few different ways to celebrate America’s birthday. You can watch a fireworks display, attend a reading of the Declaration of Independence, or rock your heart out with two of the greatest progressive rock bands in history. Styx and Yes were on tap for the latter option at 102.9 WMGK’s 11th Annual ‘Let Freedom Rock’ Festival at Camden, NJ’s Susquehanna Bank Center. Styx’s Lawrence Gowan pinned flags to his keyboard, Yes’ Benoit David draped himself in a sequin flag vest, and the crowd got to hear the American anthem “Suite Madame Blue” on the 4th of July. The founding fathers couldn’t have imagined a rock holiday so epic.

There are a lot of surprises in the Styx catalog, and the sheer amount of songs centered around America is one of them. There’s the obvious “Miss America” sung by guitar animal James “J.Y.” Young, “Man in the Wilderness” is about Tommy Shaw’s older brother serving his country in Vietnam, and last but not least the aforementioned “Suite Madame Blue”, which was pretty much written about the bicentennial celebration. Not to put any shame on Yes, but Styx was clearly born to play a gig like this.

Hosted by the DJs of Philadelphia’s classic rock station WMGK, the event was in its 11th year, but its first year transplanted inside the Susquehanna Bank Center on the New Jersey side of the river. And it’s the first year that two rock giants have been shipped in for the party.

Rest is a foreign concept to Styx. They don’t rest, they just tour. And it’s paying off for them. In the past decade, they’ve played thousands of stages in front of millions of people, becoming etched into American summer pastimes everywhere as an institution of guns blazing rock that never slows down.

Try telling 57-year-old guitarist Tommy Shaw to slow down. If you can catch him, that is. He looks, sounds, and acts as if he’s in his 20s. Whether it’s good genes, good habits, or a combination of both, the high screams of Styx anthems (especially “Man in the Wilderness”) pose no challenge at all.

He’s changing up the lyrics per usual. With a gleam in his eye, he can’t help but throw in new rhymes that sound like they should have been there all along. “We’ve been a long way together now…and we’ve still got a long way to go!” he adds after the chanting chorus of “Blue Collar Man”. Shaw lives and breathes music, and it shows in his voice; even his between-song banter sounds like a soaring verse.

But it’s not just Shaw who oozes creativity and energy on stage, it’s the entire band from hard hitting drummer Todd Sucherman to the snarling J.Y. and the unstoppable Phillips and Gowan. Logic suggests that such enthusiasm is impossible after so many nights spent on stage, but Styx defies such logic.

They kept to the hits for their 90-minute set, but they did throw in a curveball. “One With Everything” was played live in addition to on tape during the now expected swag throw. Everything from t-shirts to Gowan’s water bottle is up for grabs in this fan free-for-all.

Although Styx had been playing shows earlier in June, this was truly Yes’ first gig for the summer. But headlining over a powerhouse like Styx, there would be no time for working out the kinks.

Fortunately for the group, now led by Canadian tribute band wonder Benoit David, there weren’t many kinks – even in the new material that was tried out. “Fly from Here” is the first Yes album to be released in over a decade, bassist Chris Squire was almost embarrassed to reveal. But the Yes faithful just might forgive them for taking so long, because the title track is sounding good.

Most of the set consisted of extended glimpses into the past, however.

“Were any of you here on July 4, 1976?” asked Squire, referencing the band’s performance there 35 years ago. The epic show earned its title in a more literal fashion with several songs lasting more than 10 minutes. Guitarist Steve Howe and Squire would get caught in a jam that would seem to have no end as their frontman took to the tambourine to pass the time.

Few bands can boast a more confusing history, in fact Yes is more easily explained in eras. While Howe, Squire, and drummer Alan White are remaining pillars of the original line-up, there have been some changes behind the stack of keyboards. Original keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s son Oliver took over his dad’s duties in recent years, but now there’s been another change.

The great Geoff Downes has returned, and it made opening song “Tempus Fugit” all the more entertaining (he co-wrote it, you see). Downes is a Yes album from a brief period in 1980-81, but more commonly known as the permanent keyboardist for the spinoff Asia. Still with us? Good.

One of the main highlights of any Yes concert is without a doubt the killer jam that never fails to erupt as the show closes with “Starship Trooper”. It’s a deceiving little song that starts out slow but kicks the moment Squire grabs his bass and gives it the deepest thundering boom he can muster. According to the WMGK DJs, the stage was shaking as those notes were echoed through. And oh yes – Downes broke out his keytar to kick it into full gear. It must have been nice to break out of that keyboard cage.

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