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Styx surprises Popular band of '70s and '80s continues to entertain

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. -- Before 1972, the word "Styx" had one meaning -- the name of Greek mythology's wickedest body of water. But during the '70s and early '80s, the term gained a rather prominent second connotation.

Now, when most of us think of "Styx," we're struck with a vision far darker than a lonely river winding through the land of the dead -- five guys playing overwrought rock songs as glossy as their hair, singing about aliens, robots and ladies, and expecting us to take them seriously.

Ever since Styx released its self-titled debut album 36 years ago, the band has become the master of the mindlessly theatrical and radio-friendly rock record, usually accompanied by a hideous, perplexing album cover (the stoic middle-aged women wearing Easter Island earrings on "Pieces of Eight" is my personal favorite).

On Thursday night in the Avalon Ballroom of the Niagara Fallsview Casino, the most recent incarnation of Styx played the first show of their three-night stand, a set riddled with histrionics -- and more than a few guilty pleasures.

As a result of the band's Pink Floyd-like legal turmoil a few years back, when original lead singer Dennis DeYoung sued his former bandmates (and lost) over the right to use the name Styx, the current band isn't quite the genuine article. Guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, who joined Styx right before its rise to superstardom in the mid-'70s, and guitarist/original member James Young were the only familiar faces.

Still, the supporting cast of keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, bassist Ricky Phillips and drummer Todd Sucherman was top-notch, and when the band unveiled its opening song -- the organ-fueled "Blue Collar Man" -- it was chugging on all cylinders, and sounding like classic Styx.

Shaw kept the band focused from that point forward, his playing crisp and nimble, his voice strong and emotive. "Too Much Time On My Hands" was revealed to be a nifty little New Wave melody, complete with vocal stutters on the chorus. "Grand Illusion" and "Crystal Ball" were confusing and melodramatic, but it was charming to be reminded of a time when such garbled metaphors could sell in the millions.

The high point of the night was a surprisingly spot-on cover of The Beatles' "I Am the Walrus," which showed Gowan to be quite a talented singer, with the rest of the band sounding sharp and full of energy.

As the capacity crowd went wild, I no longer felt the urge to find the original Styx, and drown myself in its deathly waters.

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WHO: Styx

WHEN: Thursday night; additional performances at 9 tonight and Saturday

WHERE: Avalon Theatre, Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, Niagara Falls, Ont.

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