Two Sides of Progressive Rock-Gentle Giant & Styx

This past week saw a study in Progressive Rock contrasts when two bands from the classic progressive rock era, Three Friends, A.K.A. Gentle Giant and Styx came through the Philadelphia area.

Three Friends playing Gentle Giant at Sellersville Theater

Gentle Giant represented the adventurous experimental side of Progressive Rock, mixing jazz, blues, madrigals and classical music into a heady mix of time signature twisting grooves and melodically convoluted themes.  Three Friends consists of one member from Gentle Giant’s founding,  guitarist Gary Green and another from their early years, drummer Malcolm Mortimer, who was replaced in 1972 after a motorcycle accident.  At Sellersville Theater they were rounded out by three “replacement” musicians who were by and large up to the task.  The only problem was that the lead voice of Gentle Giant, Derek Shulman is not part of this enterprise. He was replaced by Pierre Bordeleau  who was actually a substitute for Mick Wilson, who has been singing with the group but couldn’t make this gig.  With a thin voice that has trouble hitting the high notes, Bordeleau  isn’t quite up to the wild calliope singing of Derek Shulman, and his bemused stage presence just seemed wrong.   It was like watching your high school science teacher.

Gary Green has never sounded better, casting off some gorgeous blues inflected solos including a wah-wah drenched bridge that just lifted the room.  Malcolm Mortimer has a great drum sound that negotiated the tricky rhythmic shifts of the band and keyboardist Gary Sanctuary held down a lot of the intricate orchestral/synthesizer arrangements on keyboards.  They played music from across their career from the madrigals of “Pantagruel’s Nat” to a very free version of “Free Hand.”  They are called Three Friends but a Gentle Giant by any other name is still a Gentle Giant.

There were many projections used during the show in a multi-image collage fashion.  One of the most ironic was one of screaming girls at a concert.  That’s the unfulfilled dream of many progressive rock groups, but not Styx, the early 70s prog-pop band who still has groupies in their audience and a line at the women’s bathroom (See joke: How do you know you’re at a progressive rock concert?  There’s no line for the women’s restroom.)

Styx is currently on tour and this past Saturday the river flowed through the Sovereign Arts Performing Center in Reading,  PA.  Like Three Friends/Gentle Giant, there is one original member of the group, guitarist James Young and one later member, guitaristTommy Shaw.   To my progressive ears in 1972 when the band debuted, Styx was always the poppy face of progressive rock.  They were a band that took all of Prog’s complexities and carved them into digestible hook laced Top 4o tunes that eschewed Progs tendency towards multi-part compositions, improvised extrapolations and technical flash.  In other words, they sold a lot more records than most, certainly more than Gentle Giant and they played to a 9000 seat house while Three Friends/Gentle Giant had an intimate audience of about 200.   But Styx’s keyboard and guitar infused songs with soaring vocal harmonies did draw justified comparisons with bands like Yes.   I didn’t go see them, but erstwhile 70s rock fan and Echoes Operations Manager Lori Daniels crossed the River Styx.

I owned every single Styx album as a teenager and to this day know the lyrics to most of their songs. Just ask the guy next to me on the treadmill at the Y, who is often subjected to my vocals and an occasional fist pump while jogging! So needless to say I was excited to be walking into the Sovereign Performing Arts Center in Reading PA to attend a Styx concert last night. It was a packed house mostly filled with middle aged adults, like me, looking to reminisce through the classic rock sounds of Styx. And Styx did not disappoint! If I closed my eyes, I was instantly transported back in time. The music was incredible! Tommy Shaw, although much smaller than I remember, was phenomenal and still I might add incredibly cute! Keyboardist and lead singer, Lawrence Gowen’s rendition of “Come Sail Away”, which I was hoping to hear, was awe-inspiring and a nostalgic reminder of my senior year in high school. The entire band put on such an energetic and entertaining performance that I couldn’t help but wonder how their stiff joints and achy muscles were going to feel the next day– my own hip started bothering me from standing up for so long! Even though the median age of the audience was somewhere between 45 -50 they were as youthfully energetic as the band! Most were either dancing down by the stage or in their seats while smartphones (instead of lighters) lit up the audience. There were also several air guitar players in the audience and at the encouragement of the band most were singing along; apparently I’m not the only one who knows the words to most every Styx song! All in all an outstanding concert as well as an extraordinary trip down memory lane. –Lori Daniels

How can you tell if a band is progressive rock?  If the audience isn’t dancing.

You can hear an interview with Gentle Giant on the Echoes Podcast.

~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))


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