What does it take to sell out Elmwood Park? Booking Styx will do the trick, apparently. Who would have guessed?
Yet the band, which had its greatest commercial success in the 1970s and 1980s, earned its crowd on Friday, the first night of Festival in the Park. Show promoter Berglund Center reported an audience of 4,500, and in two sets of classic rock and pop, the quintet kept them engaged, standing, cheering and singing along.
That was a record turnout at the venue, at least since its 2014 renovation. Sheryl Crow, headlining a city-promoted concert that celebrated Elmwood's renewal, drew a reported 4,300. No act had come close since then, though country music performer Josh Turner played in front of 4,022 last year, in another Berglund Center presentation.
But enough of those numbers. How about these numbers? "Blue Collar Man," "The Grand Illusion," "Lady," "Snowblind," "Crystal Ball," "Too Much Time On My Hands," "Come Sail Away" and encore numbers "Mr. Roboto" and "Renegade." They were the meat of two hour-long sets, played with the precision and power at which they were recorded, an impressive feat given that the band's guitarists, James "JY" Young and Tommy Shaw, are 69 and 65 years old.
Not that they are surrounded by newbies. Lawrence Gowan, the keyboardist and singer who came on after founding member Dennis DeYoung's departure, has been in the band for 21 years. He and bassist Ricky Phillips are in their 60s. The baby of the band, Todd Sucherman, is 50.
But enough of those numbers. How about these numbers? Four-part harmonies on "Lady," "Light Up" and "Miss America" that soared just like on the old albums, or 8-track tapes. Guitarist and singer Young, whose vocals led the way on the latter song, remembered, and he knew the old-school fans would, too.
"The Grand Illusion," the album from which "Miss America" sprang, sold millions, including "one million on 8-track tape," Young said. "I know somebody's still got their 8-track out there."
Styx isn't resting on those old recordings. The concert included four songs from its 2017 album, "The Mission." The band opened set one with that disc's "Gone Gone Gone," and later played "Radio Silence." The second set featured "Red Storm," performed mostly in 5/4 time, and Gowan's piano solo number, the classical-leaning "Khedive." Gowan, still solo, followed that with the night's only cover, leading a rousing crowd singalong on part of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Shaw, introducing "Radio Silence," said that "The Mission" was a concept album, written in the spirit of the old album oriented rock format, a time when a DJ would drop a needle on an album and play the entire thing.
"We were an AOR band, and we still are," Shaw said before singing that tune.
That might be the reason so many showed up on Friday night. Classic Styx music always walked a fine line between the badassery of "Blue Collar Man" and the nerd-rock of "Mr. Roboto," and it sold millions in the process. The band was not messing with some new formula to try to be quote-unquote relevant. It remained relevant to thousands on a pretty night in Roanoke. Those are some pretty impressive numbers.
It was as successful a start as Festival in the Park could have hoped for to start its three-day weekend of music, arts, crafts and family fun. The fest was to continue on Saturday with headliner The Original Wailers feat. Al Anderson, and on Sunday with traditional favorite 1964 The Tribute. Berglund Center was not involved with the rest of the lineup. The timing for Festival and Berglund's Bud Lite Up The Night Series just happened to be serendipitous.
The Bud Lite series continues on May 31, when country performer Randy Houser headlines at Elmwood.
UPDATE: Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, in a free show, draw at least 4,500 to the park in August 2018, RSO conductor David Stewart Wiley said.