SALT LAKE CITY — Styx might have had its breakthrough in 1977 with “Come Sail Away,” but 40 years later, the progressive rock band has adopted a new mode of transportation: a spaceship.
Last year, the band that produced hits such as “Mr. Roboto” and “Renegade” launched its first album in more than a decade. Titled “The Mission,” the record is a concept album about a NASA mission to Mars.
The idea for the album came into focus during the summer of 2015, when NASA invited members of the band to witness the arrival of the spacecraft New Horizons on Pluto — after a nine-year journey. This was a dream come true for longtime pianist and lead vocalist Lawrence Gowan, a self-confessed NASA enthusiast who said he was excited to see “all the NASA people jumping up and down like they just won the Super Bowl as the first pictures of Pluto (came) across.”
He was even more overjoyed when he saw images of one of Pluto’s moons that had initially been discovered in 2012. The name of that moon? You guessed it — Styx.
There’s also a lot of excitement surrounding this new album, but Gowan assures fans that Styx is going to stick to the classics during its upcoming concert at the Eccles Theater on Jan. 23 — although they will add a few songs from “The Mission” to the set list.
The upcoming concert is a significant change in venue for Styx, who typically performs alongside fellow '70s/'80s rockers including Def Leppard and Tesla at the 20,000-seat USANA Amphitheatre. But for Gowan, it’s a welcome change.
“The great thing about playing a theater show is that we play longer,” he said. “It’s an evening of Styx, so we wind up playing a couple of hours instead of just like an hour and twenty (minutes). It’s a chance for us to really connect with the most devoted of the faithful that come to these shows. It makes it extremely worthwhile. Sometimes these are even the most memorable shows of the year.”
Gowan, well known for his animated playing via his spinning keyboard stand, joined the Styx family in 1999, long after he’d already established himself as a prolific solo artist in Canada. He started in the early ‘70s, inspired by what he called an “influx of great British progressive rock keyboard players.”
Citing Rick Wakeman of Yes and Elton John among others as major influences, Gowan added that "one thing that many of them had in common was that they studied at the Royal Academy in England. In Toronto, we have the Royal Conservatory. It’s the same thing — if it says royal, it means that the queen says it’s alright.”
The pianist enrolled at the conservatory with the hope that it would make him a better rock musician in the end. And when he ended up opening for Styx in 1997 at a new hockey arena in Montreal, he was pleasantly surprised with how well his classical piano training seemed to blend with the band’s progressive rock music.
“I’d never seen Styx, so I didn’t know what to expect from their audience,” Gowan said. “At the end of the show, (guitarist) Tommy Shaw said to me, “I have a feeling we’re going to be working together again in the future.”
Gowan thought that meant more opening acts for Styx — preferably in the United States, as he’d never really gained a following there. But then he got a call two years later from Shaw, who said, “Would you do it and be in the band?”
“I thought, ‘Well, this is an unexpected turn of events,’” Gowan reflected. “Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something here, and I think I’ll listen.”
Now, with more than 2,000 Styx shows under his belt, Gowan has put his own twist on the band’s many classics from the ‘70s and ‘80s, as well as produced newer music with the band beginning with 2003’s “Cyclorama” album.
“Anytime you add new blood, it’s going to change the dynamic whether you want it to or not. … At the same time, I was very aware and respectful of the fact that this band existed long before I walked on stage with them and they were doing rather well. … They were all over the radio in Canada — you couldn’t help but know the Styx catalog. It was impossible to avoid it.”
One of Gowan’s favorite songs from that catalog is “Renegade.” Styx typically performs the song near the end of the night, and Gowan looks forward to playing it every single time. He knows the Beehive State will be no different.
“Whether we’re in Japan or Sweden or America or Mexico, it’s amazing how alike the audiences are in their reaction to that song,” he said. How joyous is the moment when that song kicks in!”
If you go …
When: Tuesday, Jan. 23, 8 p.m.
Where: Eccles Theater, 131 Main Street
How much: $39.50-$125