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Styx summons a Las Vegas Strip legend

Updated January 28, 2024 - 10:39 am

Lawrence Gowan of Styx is a rock star in fact, who grew up admiring a rock star in spirit.

“This is going to sound weird, but the first piano player I ever saw onstage that was flamboyant was Liberace,” Gowan said in an interview in December 2022. “I was 14 years old. I took the afternoon off from school because he was doing a matinee at a place in Toronto called the O’Keefe Centre (today’s Meridian Hall). I was in the standing-room-only section and watched Liberace drive on stage in this crystal-encrusted Rolls Royce limousine.

“I was like, OK, I’m definitely going to practice on my piano playing properly, because I really dig this.”

And, dig this: Gowan played an authentic Liberace piano on Friday night at The Venetian Theatre.

Gowan is fit for the assignment, a wonderful keyboardist who spins along with his 360-degree keyboard. He also sings lead on many Styx hits, including “Come Sail Away.” While introducing that song, he spoke of Liberace’s history in Las Vegas.

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“The actual first showman who played here was a piano player. He was actually here before the Rat Pack, before Elvis, before Bugsy Siegel, before Howard Hughes,” Gowan said. “He was here before anyone. He literally set the stage for everything you see here in Las Vegas. Everyone that followed basically followed this guy’s example.”

The spotlight then moved to Gowan’s left, shining on the classic “Dancing Waters” Liberace Steinway. The piano’s midnight-blue-and-gold case dates to 1900, its harp and key-and-hammer action customized in the late-’60s. The instrument blended regally with the theater’s baroque design, from its “Phantom” days.

The piece was named “Dancing Waters” because the showman would play it on a rotating platform in front of a fountain effect. The moment arrived just before the encore, and the crowd loved it.

In their debut of this latest run, Styx has not sounded better, with Tommy Shaw, James “J.Y.” Young, Todd Sucherman and Ricky Phillips all returning to VegasVille. The piano moment was just the latest means to spice the show.

Styx’s opening night was a lid-lifter in more ways than one for Liberace Foundation Chairman Jonathan Warren, who is raising the piano’s lid in every show.

“I do it all,” said Warren, who authorized use of the piano and will be backstage for all Vegas shows running Saturday, Wednesday, Friday and Feb. 3. “I was doubling up as a stage hand.”

Gowan also called for one of Liberace’s candelabras, an “extremely heavy” favorite of the headliner, as Warren described. The pianist also donned the sparkly, silver jacket from the HBO biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” which Macklemore wore in concert. Gowan then performed much of “Come Sail Away” on the legendary instrument.

A Liberace piano doesn’t just materialize in a rock show. In 2021, Gowan and Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo visited the Liberace collection at the Thriller Villa in Las Vegas, home to many pieces of the showman’s personal possessions. A three-hour tour turned into a 12-hour session (including dinner).

A plan to use the “Dancing Waters” piano in the show was hatched. The members of Styx, to their credit, agreed to set aside a moment for the man known as “Mr. Showmanship.”

“Gowan’s narrative finally gave credit where it is due, like never before,” Warren said. “This was the strongest endorsement of Liberace’s history we’ve ever seen from the stage.”

J.Y. rocks on

A couple of weeks before Styx returned to The Venetian, Young recalled his wife, Susan Young, who died in November. The couple had been married for 50 years.

“Susan had impeccable taste,” Young, the band’s founding lead guitarist, said in a phone chat this month. “She would look through all the magazines and go, ‘OK, somebody should be wearing something like this.’ She was very into fashion, very into being current with how everyone looked.”

Young said “A Man Like Me,” from the 1974 album “Man of Miracles,” was dedicated to his wife.

“That was me singing about her,” Young said of the deep cut. “It was never really a big song, but nonetheless she was a great partner at my side for the 50 years we had together.”

Young is the only current member of Styx to play on all of its 17 studio albums dating to 1972.

“Styx is doing stupid-good, still,” the 74-year-old rocker said. “I’m amazed that we have a new, younger audience out there, we’re really selling a lot of concert tickets and a lot of crazy T shirts. For a band that’s been around since 1972, I feel tremendously blessed that we’re connecting with a wide range of listener who love music.”

Cool Hang Alert

L.A. EDM artist Kaivon’s “Ultraviolet Album Tour” pours into The Portal at Area 15 at 9 p.m. Friday. It’s a sonic tour, laden with the DJ and producer’s electronic beats. Tickets start at $35; go to Area15.com for intel.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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