The band Kansas turned 40 last year, and to commemorate the event, they reunited to film a new documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere” – about the only time they have all been in the same room since 1981, when Steve Walsh split following the Audio-Visions album and tour. The group members have come to terms with that which separated them and here embrace the chance to be together, to reflect on their shared history during their formative years. Directed by Charley Randazzo and clocking in at 78 minutes, the focus of the documentary is limited to those early beginnings up through the multi-platinum Point of Know Return album and tour. The theme is really that the band, through hard work, some luck, and maybe even a few miracles, made it to the top of the rock world, and had their dreams come true.
Phil Ehart (drums) is one of the producers of the film, and is joined by band mates Dave Hope (bass), Kerry Livgren (guitars, keys), Robby Steinhardt (violin, vocals) Richard Williams (guitars) and Steve Walsh (vocals, keyboards). They focus on the positive experience of the times – no typical stories of drugs and excesses or the debate over religious content in later lyrics. Instead the tone is one of wonder at how it all came together, and of gratitude and thankfulness for those who helped the band succeed and prosper. Their story makes compelling and worthwhile viewing for any fan of Kansas or of classical and progressive rock in general, or any musician hoping to build a lasting career in in the business.
While often being considered a progressive or classical rock band, the members state here that American R&B, soul and Motown, rather than the bands of the British invasion influenced them more directly. Acts like The Four Tops, Otis Redding, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder inspired them. Robbie states, “Wilson Pickett and James Brown were my all time favorite screamers – and I wanted to learn how to scream like that.” Phil adds, “When we got together we did not bust into some Yes song, we were playing the Four Tops, Otis Redding, The Temptations.” As they developed their own sound, all agree that the combination of Kerry’s writing plus Steve’s soulful voice and Robbie’s violin made the combination that sparked the emergence of Kansas. Their challenge, as Kerry puts it, was this – “We had absolutely everything necessary for a band to make it…. except we were living in Kansas!”
As the story unfolds, we learn that Kansas got themselves out of state, and eventually put a demo into the hands of Don Kirshner who was just starting his label. After sending a scout to see them perform, he and the label ended up believing in the band. This figures prominently in the documentary as the group needed marketing and support, building a fan base through three albums that spawned no hits, and by touring incessantly, playing nearly 250 shows in a year. During these times, for their first few records, Kansas were featured on Don’s weekend television show – Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (these fantastic films are available on DVD as part of the Kansas 30 year anniversary box set “Sail On”). There’s a fun story about how the band put together a concert in 1972 advertising “free beer” and an admission price of 25 cents in order to draw a crowd and impress the label. The band was picked up, and simultaneously signed away all their publishing rights for what ended up being over 30 million in album sales. Still it was their break, and they seem to hold no grudges while covering these aspects of the past.
As the story continues, we get some rare bits and some frank recollections from the band. There is a great segment about Steven Tyler unplugging the band’s power during a show where they were going over particularly well as opener. There is some time devoted to evaluating the songwriting of both Steve Walsh and Kerry Livgren. Steve was writing more of the rocker tracks and Kerry was going in an increasingly progressive direction as they advanced album to album. Steve is magnanimous in the interview, saying “A lot of the songs I wrote for Kansas… they were really written for the wrong reason… a
few of them were heartfelt and a few of them I’m proud of but not very many – it was Kerry’s songs that came through as the fingerprint for the band.” It has to be said, while Steve honoring Kerry is just, it was the combination of head and heart, brains and brawn that made up the Kansas sound and live presentation.
As part of the documentary, all band members contribute commentary, and are joined by interviews with Budd Carr (booking agent) and Jeff Glixman (producer) who add color to the band’s story. Rolling Stone journalist David Wild and Brendan O’Brian (producer Pearl Jam/Bruce Springstein) add color about the bands impact on fans, media and “prog heads”. Country artist Garth Brooks and Queen guitarist Brian May provide musicians perspective. Kansas opened for Queen on the Sheer Heart Attack tour in 1973, and as Brian notes were very well rehearsed with amazing vocals, seeming to share the same dreams as his legendary band.
There is an important message that comes in the liner notes of this set – “Warning: Attempting to dance to Kansas music may cause injury” –given shifting meters, keys, and sometimes jagged progressive song structures, it’s advice to be heeded while listening to the CD. That disk contains no rarities, and is instead intended as an introduction to the band, which will appeal mostly to new fans, with 2-3 well chosen songs from each of their first 5 records, interspersed with quotes from the documentary. Two of the best selections representative of the Kansas sound would be “Song For America” and “Miracles Out of Nowhere.” The impactful lyrics, which are so important for this band, are shown on these youtube versions. The “limited edition” version of the set comes with a bonus DVD of the guys talking together informally, and there are several songs presented by Jeff at his mixing console, isolating tracks and describing the cuts. These extras are best suited for dedicated fans. At the end of the DVD there are two live film clips of the band in 1978.
In terms of live concert video, as with many groups of this era, there exists scant footage of the group during their most successful period. While the Kirshner Rock Concert videos are excellent at covering their early years, there is nothing I’ve seen from the Leftoverture tour, my first. For that tour, I saw Kansas at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium on January 14th, 1977. The show was spectacular in every way – the band was on fire, playing faithful renditions of all their most complex compositions with almost impossible precision. All the lighting and staging added to the experience – as an example, in one memorable moment, near the coda of “Cheyenne Anthem”, Robbie sang the final verse lit only by a tight spotlight:
Soon these days shall pass away, for our freedom we must pay
All our words and deeds are carried on the wind,
In the ground our bodies lay, here we’ll stay…
At that point, the instrumental coda crashed in and the lights came up to reveal an empty stage. This was a clever moment of unforgettable staging, as Robbie had whisked his way off the stage in just a few seconds of darkness to complete the effect. Another recollection from this time is just how impactful Kansas lyrics were, and how their emotive live presentation brought out the meaning and import of their verse. Songs like “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, “The Wall” and others made an enriching impact on the attentive listeners soul.
By the next tour, to support Point of Know Return, Kansas were playing at arenas and we saw their incredible performance on New Year’s Eve 1977 at the Long Beach arena, with Cheap Trick opening. On this occasion they pulled another stunt, departing the stage one by one, while seemingly still playing the ending jam of “Sparks of the Tempest.” Overshadowing all staging on that night was the increasingly wild, athletic performance Steve Walsh gave during his lead vocals – exuding the physicality of some crazed gymnast, while simultaneously singing his powerful lead vocals at full tilt. Two songs on this set’s DVD are from that Point of Know Return tour, filmed at Canada Jam in August of 1978 – “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Dust In The Wind” both of which are excellent. While the clips have been on Youtube, these are the best presentations to date and they capture the band at its peak.
Garth Brooks nails it when he intones that rock is the root of everything that moves us about live music- its what “makes us all get up, pump our fists, and feel like we can go home now and transfer that energy to whatever we do and be a monster at it.” This sums of what a Kansas show delivered and the band are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. As Phil concludes, “We reached a point of surpassing all of our dreams.” Hear about it in their own words, and, do yourself a favor, read the lyrics.
*select photos of Canada Jam videos