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 had all been in the same their first personnel change, when Steve Walsh split following the Audio-Visions album and tour. The group had enjoyed a solid unchanging lineup from their inception in 1973 until 1981, but since that time there has been a dozen incarnations with original members coming and going. The latest change came just after the documentary was filmed last year, when Steve Walsh, the powerful original vocalist, composer, organ and keys player retired, leaving the ongoing band with two just original members, Phil Ehart (drums) and Richard Williams (guitars). Steve was an amazing vocalist, keys player and force within Kansas, but it became clear more recently that his once soaring voice had diminished to an extent, and since his original vocal leads were so challenging, the live shows suffered a bit in the final year. Nonetheless, his departure was timed just right, coming after a long 40-year career. Whether or not he returns to the studio or stage, his legacy of fine compositions and performances will stand forever as important contributions to classic rock music.
Kansas is now touring again, populated with the two original members Ehart and Williams and new members that have joined over many years. Original member Dave Hope (bass) left in 1983 and Billy Greer has played bass with the band since then. Robby Steinhardt (violin, vocals) retired almost 10 years ago in 2006 and David Ragsdale has been their violin player since that time, with Greer covering Steinhart’s vocal parts. Principal composer Kerry Livgren (guitars, keys) was in and out of the band until his final departure in 2000, and since then both Williams and Ragsdale cover his guitar parts. After Walsh’s retirement last year, the remaining players hired Ronnie Platt primarily to cover his vocal parts, along with some keys, and David Manion to supply primary keyboard parts and add some background vocals. If all that seems like a lot to take in, a complete timeline is available online! The good news is, as seen last Saturday night September 12, 2015 in Valencia California, Kansas is definitely back and ready to roll.
While often being considered a progressive or classical rock band, Kansas was inspired by American R&B, soul and Motown, rather than the bands of the British invasion. Ehart said, “When we got together we did not bust into some Yes song, we were playing the Four Tops, Otis Redding, The Temptations.” The Livgren/Walsh writing team made ample use of shifting meters, keys, and sometimes jagged progressive song structures to build their compositions. As they developed their own sound, the combination of Kerry’s writing and playing plus Steve’s soulful, powerhouse voice and Robbie’s violin along with his vocal leads and harmonies made the combination that sparked the emergence of Kansas. The band built a fan base by touring incessantly playing nearly 250 shows in a year to support the first three albums, Kansas (1974), Song For America (1975), and Masque (1975), none of which spawned any hits. Kansas then followed these up with two sextuple-platinum albums, Leftoverture (1976) and Point of Know Return (1977). A double-live album taken from these tours, called Two For The Show followed, capturing the band at their absolute peak. Studio albums Monolith (1979) and Audio-Visions (1980) came after this, ending the unbroken string of releases from the original lineup.
I first saw Kansas play live at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium near the end of the Leftoverture tour, 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 ending their set, near the coda of “Cheyenne Anthem” Steinhardt 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 Steinhardt 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 virtuosic performance on New Year’s Eve 1977 at the Long Beach arena. On that night Steve Walsh delivered an unbelievably athletic performance – exuding the physicality of a crazed gymnast, while simultaneously singing his magnificent lead vocals at full tilt. On this occasion they pulled another stunt to end the set, departing the stage one by one, while seemingly still playing the coda of “Sparks of the Tempest.”
In a surprising and nostalgic touch, Kansas ended last Saturday’s set with that same song, walking away from their instruments to take a bow during the pre-recorded coda, echoing that bit of staging from back in 1977. What came before was a near perfect set list, which included something from all of their core releases other than Song For America. They featured many deep tracks and fan favorites to go alongside the hits. Examples included “Icarus, Borne On Wings Of Steel” from Masque, “What’s On My Mind” from Leftoverture, “Closet Chronicles” from Point Of Know Return, and a personal favorite “Reason To Be” from Monolith.
From the first notes of the opener, the title track from Point of Know Return, it was clear that this lineup is back in top form. In particular, Ronnie Platt, who took the unenviable position of hitting Steve Walsh’s rich high notes, nailed both the attitude and control needed to pull off the job. With that role filled, the well-rehearsed band sounded fantastic, able to recreate their complex, challenging pieces with precision and aplomb. We went in a bit skeptical, but came away impressed, ready to recommend the band again to new and original fans, and anyone curious to know what real classic rock is like in concert. Kansas is, once again, a band.