It must be said that Lawrence Gowan has one of the most admirable and enviable careers in Canadian rock music. A beloved solo artist in his home and native land for more than 30 years, for nearly two decades he has also been performing in front of hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide as an integral member of one iconic American classic rock band, Styx.
With not only the blessing of his bandmates and the management of Styx, but actually the overt encouragement of those folks, Gowan resumed his solo touring career a number of years ago, and manages to squeeze in about 10 solo concerts a year in between all of his Styx obligations. Those include anywhere from 110 to 120 shows per annum, plus the attendant travel and press necessary to keep the wheels of that big rock and roll machine moving forward. Last year it also included writing, recording and releasing a critically acclaimed and commercially successful new Styx studio album – The Mission.
The first four dates on the current solo tour, primarily in southern Ontario, were sold out. The final two dates are Dec. 6 at the Empire Theatre in Belleville, and the following evening at the Convention Centre in Niagara Falls for Live at the Falls.
“We had four capacity filled houses in a row and I am very proud of that, especially coming off two sold-out nights with Styx at Casino Rama. I think it’s a testament to the longevity, I guess, of our performing lives and how the songs are still resonating enough with people that they are coming out in great numbers and we’re having epic fun,” he said, adding that if it were logistically possible, he would play more solo shows, especially in the more far flung parts of Canada.
“I am in my 19th year with Styx and we have yet to play less than 100 shows a year. So it’s just a fact of life that there are only so many days in the year. I always feel bad for the people who are lamenting the fact that I haven’t played a Gowan show out west or down east, although I did do one show in Halifax last year and played in Moncton at a festival with Nazareth, Burton Cummings and some other folks in September. I am trying. Whenever there is a tiny little gap in the Styx schedule our manager accepts the offers that come in for that gap and I put the band together and we come to Toronto and usually have two intense days or rehearsal and I get out there and do it.
“What makes it a bit smoother is that it’s the Styx management that is doing that all for me and I also bring about half the Styx crew with me, as well as bringing the amazing Todd Sucherman with me too.”
For long-time fans of Gowan, this current tour is a bit of a throwback as the three musicians at the front of the stage and the same three who prowled stages throughout North America during the Strange Animal Tours back in the mid-1980s as guitarist Bob McAlpine has returned to the fold, joining Gowan and his bassist brother Terry.
The band is rounded out by Styx’s world-class drummer Todd Sucherman, keyboardist Ryan Bovaird and soul/R&B singer Sate, who is the daughter of legendary Canadian singer Salome Bey.
Even though there are a number of obligatory hits that Gowan pretty much has to play each night: from Moonlight Desires to Awake the Giant, A Criminal Mind, Strange Animal and All the Lovers in the World, he does try to keep fans guessing a little bit from tour to tour.
“We do switch the song order a lot. And there are three different pieces that we are doing on this run, although we actually just added them to the current set. We shortened down the intro and found some extra room in other parts of the show, so we’re really plowing through a lot of songs. And last year, incredibly, we uncovered an old Beta videotape of a show at the old Forum at Ontario Place in Toronto from like 1985 or 1986, and we always opened then with the song Desperate, which is the second song on the Strange Animal album,” Gowan said.
“It’s really amazing to watch, and I put it up on the website too. Holy s***, the energy that place had and held and just exploded when you walked out there. So we put Desperate back in the show because of how good it was when I saw that old video.”
At the beginning of this mini-tour, Gowan had only a few days to go from performing with Styx at Casino Rama near Orillia, Ontario to getting into his ‘solo Gowan’ headspace; something which he admits isn’t as easy as one might think.
“I always think it’s going to be effortless but I usually need a couple of days of real intense conversion therapy. Because if you think about it, I have been in Styx for a third of my life now and I am so accustomed to going on stage with those guys and I know what they bring every single night. And there is also a general register that I sing in with Styx that I don’t go much beyond. There’s a lot of bravado and exuberant positive energy going on in those shows. For the Gowan shows I really have to switch gears because a lot of the songs are far more introspective; they are a lot more theatre of the mind. And I am singing in a different timbre of voice, even when I am doing the 1990s stuff like Dancing on My Own Ground or Soul’s Road. There is more of a brooding, internal struggle and in order to convey that I have to switch back into that mode of doing it as a singer and that takes some doing,” he explained.
“That’s part and parcel as to why I change so many things physically too when I switch from Styx to Gowan shows. I change what I wear onstage as dramatically as I can. I switch sides of the stage too – I have literally changed as much as I can. It’s like jumping out of a Ferrari and getting into a Rolls Royce. They’re both really great but they drive differently and they have just as many interesting things that happen when you go down the road, and that’s great. And the frontman role for Styx is kind of a football that we hand off between Tommy Shaw and myself and then JY [James Young] comes up for a few songs. Gowan is more where there’s one single frontman but there’s a band around him that is really integral to how the whole thing unfolds.
“And funnily enough Todd Sucherman has been really helping me with that. He being the guy I have been on stage with more than anyone else in my life. He has such depth of musical knowledge and sensitivity that he actually helps me to notice some things I might overlook as I am switching back to doing Gowan shows, which is really quite amazing that the drummer in the band has such particular insight into songs and how they’re delivered.”
The Mission was a bona fide hit in an era where classic rock bands putting out new material are essentially ignored by classic rock radio. And Gowan said that from the outset, the new album was never meant to court critical acclaim or mainstream radio cache.
“When it was decided that this was going to be a full-on concept record and that we were all going to get a little moment to come to the forefront and sort of have our character speak, we’d stop sometimes and listen to the Crystal Ball album, or Grand Illusion and albums from that mid-1970s era of Styx to make sure that we were nailing, first of all the sound. So it was more than just writing it to sound like classic Styx, it came down to the sound itself. And that’s why we went to the pains of going into Blackbird Studio in Nashville and recording on tape using all these clunky old machines that made weird noises. And all of us were in the studio together; nothing was flown in or sent over email. There was no file sharing at all on this record. This was made as if we were making a record in 1978. We just decided to turn the cell phones off and had no digital technology until we used some at the end to speed up the editing process,” he said.
“The more the record moved to that sound, the more the songs began to lend themselves to that style of delivery. That’s why it sounds so authentic. To my ears, by the end of the process, I could put on Pieces of Eight, which is my favourite Styx album, and I could put on The Mission side by side and feel like this is the same band. There is a different voice in the band now, but just like I can listen to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and then I can listen to Duke, that’s still Genesis – it’s absolutely still Genesis. They’re missing two members by the time we get to Duke and it’s a different singer up front and it’s a different keyboard sound, but there is something very authentic about those two records side by side where I totally know it’s the same band.”
When Music Life Magazine spoke to Gowan in the summer of 2016, he had completed the recording of a new solo album and was waiting to have a sufficient break in his schedule to be able to promote it properly when it was released. As already chronicled in this new article, he still hasn’t found that gap, but is committed to releasing a new solo album as soon as it is viable to do so.
“Everything is ready and I am very excited about it because, much like The Mission, it’s a very authentic sounding classic rock record. We also recorded it all to tape and used old technology for the mixing as well. I think part of what helped The Mission along was I was always talking to Styx producer Will Evankovich and telling him how much fun it was doing my album old school. And he would say, ‘yeah, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.’ And then Tommy Shaw was right in there and he got excited and wanted to do it that was as well,” he said, adding that there are other projects in the works, including possible reissues of his Lost Brotherhood and But You Can Call Me Larry albums. Part of his creative legacy is administered through his current label True North, while his former Anthem Records catalogue is now administered by ole, who has very ambitious plans for all their former Anthem properties, having recently re-issued a massive new Max Webster package as well as a revamped version of Rush’s A Farewell to Kings.
“I think what’s great is that the 1980s vintage has suddenly taken on a lovely flavour. It went through some aging pains when people were very dismissive of that era and now suddenly I am hearing all these new bands and thinking it’s a band that I must have missed in the 1980s because it sounds so much of that era. It’s really well done and there’s good songwriting and it’s making me go back and listen to some of the stuff from the 1980s that I took for granted which I am realizing was pretty damn good.”
As for the future of Styx, he sees no signs of anyone in the band wanting to slow down, and the pent up demand to see the band live throughout the world means they basically control their own destiny.
“When I first joined the band in 1999 [replacing co-founder Dennis DeYoung] the goal was can we extend the life of this band for five years. Then the most amazing thing happened, we saw this whole new generation, in greater and greater numbers, coming out to the shows. So suddenly the talk was well maybe we can make this last 10 years. And the at the 10 year mark it was, well 15 is right around the corner. At 15 years our manager came in one day during a band meeting and said basically there aren’t enough days in the year to book all the shows that people want around the world. There is an insatiable demand to see the band while it exists in this form, and basically it comes down to how many shows we want to play a year. And he said, ‘it looks like you’re loving doing it, so why would you stop doing something you love.’ That’s the attitude of every man in this band,’ Gowan said.
“And you’re pretty damn lucky if you get to this age and you look across the stage and see guys who have just as much passion and drive to continue to want to do this as I do, if not more. So I am going to keep doing it, and doing my solo shows, until the day comes where I don’t end the day with several thousand people standing on their feet screaming for more.”
For more information on Lawrence Gowan, the esteemed and accomplished solo artist, visit www.gowan.org.
For more information on Styx, visit www.styxworld.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHARE THIS POST: