A band is a tricky thing. What often appears to be a solid group of four longtime friends is a fragile, ego-driven relationship between a group of creative souls, each of which tends to possess their own vision for what direction the band should be steered in. And many times those visions don’t match up, which leads to someone leaving the project altogether.
While many bands have undergone lineup changes, very few have managed to survive the departure of a lead singer. Sure a band can try and replace them, but it often fails. It’s like attempting to do a head transplant on a person. Most of the actual body parts are the same, but with a different face, it just doesn’t seem the same.
But a few bands have managed to pull off this most challenging of feats. Van Halen did it successfully with Sammy Hagar (but later failed miserably when attempting it a second time with Extreme singer Gary Cherone), AC/DC brought in Brian Johnson to great fanfare after original singer Bon Scott died, and in 1999, Styx — which comes to Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City 8 p.m. Friday, May 17 — pulled off the old swicheroo, replacing piano playing frontman Dennis DeYoung with Lawrence Gowan.
Stepping into the shoes of a well-known singer is no easy task. The obvious question is, does he sound just like DeYoung? The answer is no. And that’s OK with him.
“Basically Dennis and I have the same vocal range, so I can hit the same notes in the songs that he sang, but I am using my own voice. I don’t do impressions. The only impression I think I am any good at is Joe Pesci,” laughs Gowan as he launches into a rather convincing vocal mimic of the famous Italian-American actor.
For Gowan, taking over as lead singer of the band behind such hits as “Come Sail Away” and “Lady” wasn’t so much a case of stepping into someone else’s role as it was an opportunity to push the band forward in their artistic endeavors.
“We naturally use the word ‘replace,’ but you don’t really replace anyone when they leave a band, it’s just that the band went on. Luckily, when I joined none of the guys ever said ‘you’ve gotta look like Dennis’, ‘you’ve gotta sound like Dennis’ or anything like that. We kinda just set off on the journey and I am in my 21st year with the band at this point.”
While the band itself may have accepted their new vocalist and his artistic merits, convincing the fans to jump on board can be an uphill battle.
“I’m seeing thousands of people on their feet at the end of the show every night smiling and hi-fiving each other, and it’s been like that since the first show I ever did with the band more than 2000 shows ago,” he notes.
“But at the same time I am aware that whenever a major change is made in a band it can be tough to swallow for the fans, but not always. To put it all in perspective, I went to see a Rolling Stones concert and I was looking at (current Stones guitarist) Ronnie Wood and all I could think of was ‘Man, this guy is such a part of the Stones. His demeanor exudes the spirit of this band.’ And yet, he is their third guitarist. Mick Taylor and Brian Jones each played on albums before him. What I have learned from that is that a band is more than the sum of its parts. It seems to work when the spirit of the band remains intact.”
As for their show at Hard Rock this Friday, fans can expect to hear all the obvious choices from “Babe” to “Mr. Roboto,” but for Gowan it’s the spaces in between that matter most.
“It focuses mostly on the big four albums that Styx put out in the late ’70s, but it’s the other songs we add to the mix that really define the flavor of that show. And those change regularly.”