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Being relatively new to LA, I’m still in awe of how monstrous the traffic is here. Cut to me sweating in my car on the 405 last Friday evening, glancing at my dash clock every forty seconds, wondering how in hell so many people are on the road all the damn time around here.

I’d given myself what I thought was ample time to make it to Styx’s show at Orange County’s Pacific Amphitheater, but just like seemingly every other time of day on seemingly every freeway in Los Angeles, endless droves of automobiles surrounded me on all sides. We were moving at a retired snail’s pace, and as is so often the case in my car, I was trying not to scream myself into an aneurysm.

The minutes clipped by as I finally reached my exit, searched for and found not-terribly-convenient parking, and speed-walked uncomfortably across the world’s largest parking lot to the venue. A ridiculously beautiful sunset painted the sky behind me, but I could only concentrate on not tripping on the hem of the maxiskirt I was now kicking myself for wearing.

It was 8:08, a scant seven minutes from showtime, and I still had to pick up my ticket and secure my photo pass and find my place inside. This was not looking good. If I didn’t make it to the photo pit before the show started, I wasn’t sure if they’d let me down there, and I was going to kill myself right there if I missed the opportunity to shoot Styx.

I took my place at the end of a dismally long Will Call line, doing what strangers probably misinterpreted as my pee dance until I made it to the window, where I had to wait for some dude to bring me my photo pass. I was close enough to hear the sounds of the crowd inside the open-air theater. Each round of cheers from the audience just amplified my anxiety, which was already idling at about an eleven.

After empires rose and fell, the media guy brought me my photo pass and told me to meet him at the gate after I entered the venue. Of course — of course! — I couldn’t find him. It was 8:17. Frantic, I flagged down the first event staff person I saw, who kindly radioed the guy I needed to meet.

Two minutes or two centuries later, he showed up and ushered me into the theater. The lights were down and the crowd was going nuts. “Go down to the stage,” he instructed me, and then left me to battle through security guards at four-foot intervals who all needed to see my ticket and photo pass. The stage was so tantalizingly close, yet I was as helpless as I had been on the freeway.

As I inched closer, I saw the other photographers kneeling at the foot of the waist-high stage. At that moment, the first electrifying keyboard riff of “Blue Collar Man” rang out. The crowd roared behind me as I cleared the last security guard. I knew there was only one thing I could do, maxiskirt be damned. I wound up and power-slid to the foot of the stage, skinning my knee and losing a shoe in the process, and landing there literally one second before Styx took the stage. Couldn’t have timed it better if I’d planned it.

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It was a fittingly awesome beginning to a simply incredible night with Styx. I’d definitely been looking forward to it since my interview with lead singer Lawrence Gowan, but the power of Styx is that their boundless energy and genuine passion for performing has to be seen to be believed.

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How does a band perform a forty-year-old catalog a hundred times a year and still seem to be having the time of their lives? You’ll have to ask Styx. Actually, if I ever talk to Lawrence again, I should ask him myself. Throughout the show, every member of the band was laughing and engaging the audience and tossing out guitar picks and t-shirts like it was their first tour. That’s so great to see, especially from such a huge band.

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“Blue Collar Man” led into “Grand Illusion,” and I’d have probably been satisfied with just those two songs, honestly. Instead, Styx led us through some of their most powerful hits, including “Fooling Yourself,” “Lady,” “Miss America,” “I’m OK,” and “Crystal Ball.” I was a little bummed that they didn’t play my personal favorite, “Suite Madame Blue,” but there’s always next time, guys.

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One of the best things about Styx, and probably one of the keys to their success, is that they all share the musical and vocal burden equally well. As great individual musicians, they’re able to do that. It’s really remarkable to watch five guys — or six, if you include special guest and original bassist Chuck Panozzo — who are that talented and who complement each other so well. When you combine that level of talent and enthusiasm with the grandeur inherent to Styx’s music, it results in a truly exhilarating experience.

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Lawrence Gowan was a pleasure. His onstage presence really reflects what a warm and sincere person he is. More importantly, that guy can tear those keyboards UP. From his spinning electric piano, he showed off his incredible piano-playing skills with a kickass solo that led right into the resplendent “Pieces of Eight.”

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From there, he led the crowd in a sing-along medley of covers — “Sweet Dreams,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. II” — that culminated in an absolutely stunning rendition of “Come Sail Away” that gave me goosebumps. The band encored with “Rockin’ the Paradise” and finished off the night with a blazing rendition of “Renegade,” one of my all-time favorites and apparently one of Tommy Shaw’s, too, from the way he busted it out.

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Classic rock bands should use Styx as a model for how hard they should be bringing it. Ideally, they’d travel back in time and make sure to comprise their band of genuinely talented musicians who can maintain and improve that level of ability over a forty-year span.

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Barring that possibility, they need to be able to deliver an experience at a live performance that is a significant and undeniable improvement over the album recordings we’ve all had memorized for forty years. Their vocals need to be stunning. Their energy needs to be through the roof. Their guitars need to be faster and harder and more precise, and their solos need to rip faces off. Styx simply nails this on all counts. It was an unforgettable experience, and I’m glad this murderous LA traffic didn’t spoil it for me. P.S. I didn’t miss Dennis DeYoung one bit.

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