Okay, we already know what some of you are going to say. Dennis DeYoung sings all these sentimental ballads. He tells really corny jokes onstage. He doesn’t even pretend that he’s trying to look and dress like a typical rock star. But here’s the thing: those things were part of the reason, and not an impediment to the fact that his concert performance at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Thursday night (March 28) was such a smashing success.

DeYoung and his remarkably tight and skillful band joined the Nashville Symphony for a performance that brought the music he helped create over the decades he spent at the helm of Styx into one of the most enjoyable and high-quality classic-rock-themed shows to play Nashville over the last several years. It can be such a mixed bag seeing older touring classic rock acts; some are still okay, but so many of them are shells of their former glory, containing perhaps one or two original members and sounding little like themselves at their peak. It can feel sad sometimes, but not on a night like Thursday.

Not only does DeYoung retain the entire range of his remarkable voice at age 72, still delivering the songs in their original keys with ease (well, save for one or two moments), he actually sang better on Thursday than he did when he and his band appeared in a rock-band-only gig at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium in 2013. DeYoung’s always been a technically exceptional vocalist, but he’s singing his old catalog with more emotion than he has in the past, imbuing the songs he’s sung so many times with a new vulnerability. You can almost hear in his voice the realization that there are far more many such great nights onstage behind him as there are in front of him.

That works especially well for a song like “The Best of Times,” which was one of his vocal highlights Thursday. In these turbulent times, hearing him sing, “The headlines read, ‘These Are the Worst of Times’ / I do believe it’s true,” there’s a weariness in his performance that almost seems to say, “And believe me, kid, I know the difference.”

DeYoung is also still one of the most accomplished rock keyboardists of his generation, one of America’s few alternatives to progressive rock pioneers like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. Several of his best moments took place behind the keys, including his soaring solo on “Suite Madame Blue,” as well as a dramatic classical piano segue between “The Grand Illusion” and “Lady” and his climactic synth breaks on “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).” The latter song featured DeYoung as a sideman in his own band as guitarist August Zadra took the spotlight to re-create Tommy Shaw’s vocal parts from the latter’s best-known contribution to Styx’ 1977 classic, The Grand Illusion.

One thing that shone through consistently is how much DeYoung appears to understand and genuinely appreciate being in the position that he’s still in after all these years, getting to present his music in such a high-quality setting with such a finely-tuned band instead of spending the latter part of his career on the chili cook-off circuit as so many of his contemporaries are doing. If the chemistry he has with his band isn’t genuine, it’s certainly an excellent acting job; he, Zadra and guitarist Jimmy Leahey frequently hammed it up, lining up on stage old-school style to windmill their arms and jam together, with DeYoung accompanying on a mean air guitar in an unapologetic celebration of the fact that having goofy fun is why everyone in the room that night wanted to be there.

DeYoung also thanked his band and introduced each one proudly, also including bassist Craig Carter, keyboardist John Blasucci, drummer Mike Morales and DeYoung’s wife, Suzanne, who sings harmonies live and served as the inspiration for many of his biggest hits. He then gave some well-deserved spotlight to the Nashville Symphony and his arranger and conductor Arnie Roth, who charted the Styx songs for orchestrations and avoided the pitfalls that usually dog orchestral rock shows – namely, that the arrangements usually suck. Roth’s arrangements are very good about bringing out the classical inclinations that already underlie many of DeYoung’s songs, including “The Grand Illusion,” “Lady” and most notably, “Suite Madame Blue.” After an incendiary performance of the latter that had the crowd at the Schermerhorn roaring, DeYoung extended his arms to include the entire stage full of musicians as he proudly told the audience, “That’s why you paid your money.”

DeYoung closed the main portion of the show with "A.D. 1958," the album-closing motif from 1981's Paradise Theatre, Styx' other most important album. The lyrics originally served as an elegy to an America that had seen its better days as the '80s dawned, but they rang even more wistful on Thursday as DeYoung sang, "And so my friends we'll say goodnight / For time has claimed his prize / But tonight can always last as long as we keep alive / The memories of paradise."

Styx fans in Nashville last night got to do exactly that.

DeYoung and his band return to the Schermerhorn stage again on Friday (March 29) and (March 30) as they finish up a three-night stand with the Nashville Symphony.

 

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