Pop-Break Live: Styx and Yes

brent johnson visits the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., to take in the classic rock of Styx and Yes …

The rotating silver keyboard sat on a round silver platform.

It was impossible to ignore as Styx stood on stage last night at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. Sometimes, keyboardist Lawrence Gowan spun the chrome-colored instrument like a roulette wheel in between riffs. Other times, he simply turned away from the keys — and played them behind his back.

In other words, it was all the subtlety you’d expect from a prog-rock concert.

The show was the second stop on Styx’s summer tour with Yes — a bill that would likely sell out stadiums were it 1978. These days, both bands are missing key original members. Gowan replaced Dennis DeYoung — Styx’s main musical force — more than a decade ago. Benoit David, the singer in a Yes tribute band, took over for Yes frontman Jon Anderson in 2008.

Still, the mostly middle-aged crowd didn’t seem to mind last night. They got to see longtime Styx guitarists Tommy Shaw and James ‘J.Y.’ Young trade solos. They got to hear founding Yes members Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White make jazz-rock sound ambient. They got to sing along with hits they’ve heard dozens of times on turntables and FM radio. And all of that is why ’70s and ’80s superstars, now graying and no longer chart-toppers, continue to rake in money at concert halls around the world. It’s the musical equivalent of family photo albums. Nostalgia is comforting.

It can be unexpectedly entertaining, too. Prog and stadium rock — the genres Styx and Yes peddled in the ’70s — were never hip. They often made critics wince. And songs like ‘Lady’ and ‘Come Sail Away’? Yeah, they’re pretty cheesy.

But Styx clearly doesn’t care — and there’s a charm in that. Gowan pranced around like a knight at Medieval Times, waving his microphone like a sword. Shaw bent down on one knee at the edge of the stage as he relished one of his guitar solos. Fireworks burst on the video screen behind them. As the band welcomed founding bassist Chuck Panazzo on stage to guest on the final few songs, the crowd erupted. There’s a joy in such excess. Maybe bands like Creed and Nickelback wouldn’t seem so pretentious with a spinning silver keyboard.

Plus, last night’s show was a reminder that Styx has a few underrated songs. Shaw’s ‘Too Much Time On My Hands’ is one step away from the hook-laden new wave that critics fawned over in the early ’80s. ‘The Grand Illusion’ has a pretty, Beatles-like descending chord progression. And ‘Renegade’ may be insanely over the top, but it’s also insanely catchy.

As for Yes’ half of the evening? None of their keyboards rotated. Instead, Geoff Downes stood in a semicircle console filled with nine synthesizers, often using three or more in one song. Yes were always musicians first. Their songs were in odd, complicated time signatures. They featured guitar parts that caused Howe’s fingers to bounce like pinballs around his instrument’s neck. Their music was a precursor to jam bands like Phish.

Last night, not a note was out of place — probably because most of Yes’ lineup features founding members. Even new vocalist David does a remarkable impression of Jon Anderson’s lilting high voice. They shared some new music, as well — the airy, Yes-by-numbers title track from their upcoming album, Fly From Here.

The rest of the set was familiar, though. They played the pastoral/driving-rock hybrid ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ and their only No. 1 single, ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ — a great track from 1984, when the band trafficked in the synth pop of the era. And, of course, they closed their set with 1972’s chugging ‘Roundabout,’ their fantastic first hit single — and proof that many prog-rockers had concise pop melodies peeking out from behind all the noodling.

For more information and tour dates, visit their similarly named websites: StyxWorld.com and YesWorld.com.

Note: Last night’s show also featured a striking opening act, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Shane Alexander. He toils in traditional-sounding heartfelt acoustic rock, but he has a clear, soaring voice and a handful of interesting chord progressions. His website: ShaneAlexanderMusic.com.

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