‘If you have a dream, tell somebody because you might be closer than you think’
Story & photo by Max Parker Dahl
SALT LAKE CITY — It might have been the smoke of charbroiled burgers or the many mullet-goatee combinations surrounding me, but it felt great to be an American at USANA amphitheater Saturday night. Two great American rock bands split the stage for three hours and told Old Father Time to stuff it, as their aging bodies danced around and around the large stage.
REO Speedwagon played their set with unrelenting vigor, ending every song like they were leaving the stage with prolonged solos and epic drum crashes. Each member an excellent musician, they embodied the adage “once a rock star, always a rock star,” seeming to have gotten better with age. Bassist Bruce Hall’s fingers danced and caressed while Dave Amato strangled the neck of his guitar, making it squeal high, distorted notes. Their evergreen energy was surprising; their deeply tanned, taut and clean skin was tattoo-free, except for drummer Bryan Hitt. Speedwagon looked like a young and grateful band with huge hits and huge potential, but played with that “old man strength” in vocals and instrument handling.
The event was very family friendly, with nearly 60 percent of couples attended by tweens and college students. I was standing next to two sets of father-son outings with 10- and 11-year-old boys. I remembered my first rock concert with my dad: Sammy Haggar in 1998, third-row seats, Cabo Wabo tequila being spit all over the crowd. That was definitely not a family friendly event, and thankfully there was no resemblance this evening.
After a quick set change to a more industrial look, Styx took the stage unassumingly. I would let the music do the talking, but you must’ve had more important plans. More than musicians, Styx is foremost theatrical, no matter how hard they try to distance themselves from it. Every move and note has been perfected after countless shows, more like a ballet accompanied by an orchestra than a rough-and-tumble rock outfit. Don’t get me wrong, Styx still rocks, but they do it with a classical beauty like a statue of hewn marble.
They played Grand Illusion almost entirely. “Styx exemplified a time when radio was what we call ‘album oriented’,” vocalist Tommy Shaw said. “We’d give them an album and they would play every song on both sides. We looked at it as one big piece, so we are going to go a little deeper because we believe you know these songs, and will sing along with us.”
Shaw’s hair was blown effortlessly as he moved across the stage, cueing screams with his fingers and flexing his incredibly defined biceps. Lawrence Gill turned USANA into a baroque chapel as he rotated his keyboard in circles playing a classical organ number, and toyed with the crowd before launching into Come Sail Away. Everyone looked like they had been dabbed with stage make-up, except James Young. His smirk and stage demeanor reminded me of the sarcastic, crazy uncle that tries to spike the punchbowl at reunions. The three lead-vocalists rotated through songs and had incredible voices, their instrumentation flawless.
“The show was perfect; I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Young. “We have had a love affair with this town for almost 40 years, and we wanted to play a show worthy of the crowd. I really think that Salt Lake helped to break us out. A little Provo station, KEYY played Lady early, early on, and we came to play the Icehouse Club in the fall/summer of ’73. They have been an incredible crowd since day one.”
Young was the reminder that despite the glam and perceived beauty of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, these musicians are still very grounded and realistic.
“Life has become so difficult all of a sudden in the past 10 years, and music has the power to calm, soothe and to heal,” said Young. “It comes from a higher power, and we are the stewards of that great power. When energy begins to flow and we receive it back from the crowd, together we are surfing the wave of joy, as I like to say.”
Shaw encouraged the crowd before launching into Crystal Ball about sticking with their dreams despite the negative talk musicians hear.
“In 1973 I was the new guy in Styx, and I wanted to play in a band like Styx in front of a city like Salt Lake,” Shaw said. “I only knew how to express myself through music. So if you have a dream, tell somebody because you might be closer than you think.”