Tag Archives: kansas

Cruising the Progressive Seas

ctte2017_slide_fish_lodgeFresh air, exceptional, challenging music, calm seas, good fellowship: this year’s floating concert spectacle, Cruise to the Edge 2017 was undeniably one of the best yet. It’s the forth time progressive rock heroes Yes have sponsored this particular festival and it was smooth sailing in almost every respect. This time we were afloat on the Brilliance of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise liner which experienced travellers said was above average though not the best craft in the league. Made little difference – the real attraction of these trips is the exciting lineup of progressive rock bands new and old, fresh or reconstituted, and this year’s collection of artists ensured there was something for every fan.

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Yes has been joined in the past by their 1970s contemporaries Marillion, Steve Hackett, Carl Palmer, PFM, Three Friends (Gentle Giant), Tangerine Dream, UK, Caravan, and Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), along with newer prog acts Anathema, Enchant, Moon Safari, Lifesigns and many others. Each festival has had something to offer, and has been successful despite each running into a storm during the voyage!

ctte2017_flyingcolorssm_144dpiThis year’s lineup included returning mainstays and new acts: Yes, Steve Hackett, Kansas, Mike Portnoy, The Neal Morse Band, Spock’s Beard, Stickmen, Haken, IO Earth, Patrick Moraz, Bad Dreams, District 97, Anglagard, Curved Air, Frost, Electric Asturias, Focus, The Fringe, Dave Kerezner, Pain of Salvation, and Scott Henderson. An excellent lineup made even better with a special appearance by Dixie Dregs/Kansas/Deep Purple axe-man Steve Morse who surprised the crowd on opening day with a great but short set from Flying Colors, staged during Mike Portnoy’s 50th birthday bash.

 

wettonjohn2017_withuk_72dpiMissing this year but certainly not forgotten was prog legend John Wetton, who passed away just before the cruise was to depart, a very short time after announcing he would not be able to make the event. John Lodge from The Moody Blues stepped in after the unfortunate announcement. There was a moment of silence for John at the opening event, and a number of tributes to him by the other artists on the cruise – possibly the most touching when Steve Hackett dedicated the Genesis mainstay “Afterglow” to our fallen friend. We miss you more …as well.

Once again Jon Kirkman was our eloquent master of ceremonies. Jon is so deeply studied in the prog arts and music in general that his many interviews with band members during the course of the cruise are a always a highlight. Jon’s new book, Yes Dialogue (@TimeAndAWordTheYesInterviews) is hitting stores now. We had the brief chance to take a look at this excellent book, which sports numerous never-before-seen photos and lots of inside information on this enduring band.

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Roger Dean was in attendance again this year, with Michael and the team at Trading Boundaries at his gallery top deck. This was another chance for cruisers to obtain one of Roger’s stunning prints, from the Yes and Virgin Records logos, to the cover of Gentle Giant’s Octopus (UK), or the magnificent cover for Yes Tales From Topographic Oceans. Roger kindly displayed a copy of my new book Rockin’ the City of Angels at his front desk with postcard ads as this tome contains licensed shots of the Yes Relayer tour taken by Martyn Dean in addition to a couple of Roger’s legendary album cover images.
https://www.amazon.com/Rockin-City-Angels-Douglas-Harr/dp/0997771100/

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Roger Dean’s Gallery

One of the fantastic features of this cruise is the Late Night Live sessions. As the name implies live music fills the wee hours from about midnight into the early morning. Organized by broadcaster Rob Rutz and a team of dedicated proggers, this event gives attendees who can play or sing a chance to take the stage and perform with other fans, sometimes with one of the professional musicians who come to cheer them on and lend an occasional hand. This afforded us a chance to see and hear Jon Davison (Yes), Nad Sylvan (Steve Hackett) members of Circuline and others perform side by side with many talented fans, as they work together often for the first time, through long set lists that cover tracks from our prog favorites old and new.

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Late Night Live: Yes “Heart of the Sunrise” Andrew Colyer (keys), Darin Brannon (drums), Rose Danese (vocals) Joel Simches (bass) Tom Maltose (guitar)

As mentioned, there was something for fans of nearly every style of progressive rock music from the big acts to the newer lot. As usually there isn’t time to get to all of the bands. Here are some snaps from the top acts I was able to see:

Yes: Continued their album-pair set that included the hard-driving Drama record and two sides of masterwork Tales From Topographic Oceans. Jay Shellen was there to assist Alan White on drums, and Billy Sherwood was absolutely on fire, visibly happy, relaxed and just nailing bass parts that were absolutely reminiscent of Chris Squire yet still colored by his own unique palette. I could have watched the whole show again just to see and hear Sherwood at that level of excellence. It had to be part of what drove the whole band, including guitarist Steve Howe to perform at the top of their game. That Drama was featured surely inspired keyboard wizard Geoff Downes who was a part of that era’s lineup. Jon Davison also mentioned in interview that it was liberating for him to do some vocals not originally recorded by founder Jon Anderson as this allowed for some stretching out, on material that is more strident and modern (added Howe and White).

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Steve Hackett: played a few stellar new tracks, along with a set list that included several from Genesis masterwork Wind and Wuthering, now 40 years on. These songs included “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” “One for the Vine,” and EP B-side “Inside and Out” along with the oft-played suite that ends the album. During that coda, Hackett dedicated “Afterglow” to fallen friend John Wetton leaving not many a dry eye in the house. Hackett and his band continue to stage innovative progressive rock concerts that are second to none.

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Kansas took the stage for a pair of first time CTTE performances, receiving many standing ovations from the audience. With the addition of Ronnie Platt on vocals and keys, and additional expert musicians, the band is able to present new and old Kansas music with the level of instrumental and vocal prowess once championed by retired founders Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh, albeit without the handstands!

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Mike Portnoy celebrated his 50th birthday, and for his fans and admirers this was a key event on the cruise. Of the various bands he’s been in, my top vote goes to Flying Colors and they were the toast of the launch.

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Haken: They get the award for continuous improvement. I’ve seen them over the years and each time their performances just get tighter, both instrumentally and vocally, fronting compositions that increasingly achieve balance between light and dark for a melodic and powerful form of prog.

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Anglagard: Similarly this exceptional Swedish band continues to amaze as they endure. Their first performance was cut short by late night rain, but the full set the next day found them astutely blending electric and acoustic piano/sax/flute against electric frets for a compelling strain of prog, most reminiscent of the 70s era while still sounding new and all their own.

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IO Earth: beautiful compositions and performance that blended middle eastern motifs with rock instrumentation.

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Focus: They sounded better than any time I’ve seen them – great sound and performance by this Dutch band, fronted by the always entertaining, Thijs van Leer.

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Curved Air: Legendary British band fronted by long time inspiring vocalist Sonia Kristina closed the cruise with the final set late Friday night.

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Electric Asturias: Exceptional blend of jazz-fusion and prog forms hailing from Japan.

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Stickmen: Masters of dissonance Tony Levin/Pat Mastelotto/Markus Reuter were fantastic as always.

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Patrick Moraz: legendary keyboardist on his own at the piano…. Magnifique!

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District 97: Highly talented band, brilliant set.

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Neal Morse and Spock’s Beard were crowd favorites I ended up missing, but everyone I talked to who saw them, John Lodge, Bad Dreams, Alex Machacek, Frost, The Fringe, Dave Kerzner and Pain of Salvation loved those sets.

Back on dry land this week …vive le rock (y tambien, terra firma)!

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goodnight proggers…

Dixie Dregs Soldier On

DixieDregs_Live5_72dpiDixie Dregs was an American band formed in the early 1970s by guitarist Steve Morse and bassist Andy West. Their music was almost exclusively instrumental, fusing rock, country, and a bit of jazz into a potent brew that was designed to showcase each band member’s virtuosity. Their core compositions were typically rooted in traditional country & western, most frequently upbeat and exciting. Their live shows were absolutely fantastic. One of their signature and most entertaining feats in concert was a game of “musical chairs” where each musician would trade off soloing in round-robin fashion, taking leads for ever decreasing measures until each would play just one note, passing from one to the next at lightning speed in an amazing display of talent. Musicians came and went from the Dixie Dregs, all of them exceptional, and founder Steve Morse has always been at the helm.

After two early albums, the band was signed to Capricorn Records and released their most progressive album What If (1978), produced by Ken Scott, featuring Morse and West joined by Rod Morgenstein (drums), Mark Parrish (keyboards), and Allen Sloan (violin). After completing their first tour that year, they combined a few of the live recordings and several new pieces to create their most popular Grammy nominated album, 1979’s Night of DIxieDregs_NOTLDCover_72dpi.jpgthe Living Dregs. The opening track “Punk Sandwich,” is a perfect introduction to the band for any fan or casual listener. Rapid-fire guitar and violin leads backed by electric organ bridge the tuneful melody. The second track “Country House Shuffle” leads off with a drum solo that demonstrates Morgenstein’s apt skills. The second half of the record is punctuated by the live track “The Bash” which demonstrates one of the country-western jams that featured their signature round-robin solos. I caught the band live on this tour at some small venue in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles and it was a spectacular show from the first note to the last.

The band signed with Arista at the end of the 70s, and released an excellent follow up album, Dregs of the Earth (1980) with the talented T. Lavitz replacing departed Mark Parrish on keys. I was fortunate to see this tour as well at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, and recall being surprised that Lavitz was able to meet the challenge set by their former keys wizard. It was another exceptional concert experience.

Widespread success eluded the Dixie Dregs, though they managed to build a core following of eager admirers. As the eighties wore on, the group hoped to expand their audience by changing their name to The Dregs, after which they released Unsung Heroes (1981) and Industry Standard (1982) the latter with guest vocalists. Soon after they disbanded but have continued to stage concerts sporadically to this day. Steve Morse plied his axe during a short solo career, and also took on lead guitar duties in years since with Kansas and then Deep Purple.

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ON FILM

DIxieDregs_LiveCover_72dpiFortunately, there is an excellent film of the Dixie Dregs in their prime on the tour supporting What If. This is available on DVD titled Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1978, featuring a nearly complete set from which the live half of Night of the Living Dregs was taken. The 60 minute long concert includes fourteen choice songs, captured at 144:1 aspect ratio, preserved with a fine clear image and respectable sound considering the era. The only complaint would be that there are not enough clear shots of guitarist Steve Morse, and the ones that are presented suffer from an awkward angle. By contrast there are too many shots of violinist Alan Sloan. With a group of musicians this balanced it would have been better to afford nearly equal time to each. Also there are few perspective shots that capture the entire group across the stage, something that would be helpful on those collaborative jams. Nonetheless, the footage is excellent, and it is a rare document of this important band. The DVD is rounded out by a couple of television appearances, one at “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” and a second as The Dregs on “American Bandstand,” which includes a moment of conversation with host Dick Clark. Highly recommended.

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Best Concerts of 2015

BestOf2015_Buddies2Once again my wife Artina and I had a wonderful year of travel and concerts, stoking our love of music and performance. It was another year that saw many acts from the 1970’s and 80’s coming back to town, along with several new bands we’ve followed over the last 25 years. Here is a list of the eleven best shows (one more than 10!) more or less ordered from best to less best, from where we sat:

Steven Wilson, San Francisco & London

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We were privileged to catch Steven on his Hand.Cannot.Erase. tour stop at the Warfield theater in San Francisco, and then again one the second night of his London show at the Royal Albert Hall. Both were spectacular, but the London show was special as Ninet Tayeb was on hand to sing a devastating, beautiful lead vocal for “Routine” and Wilson performed many Porcupine Tree classics including a song I’ve happily not been able to get out of my head “She’smovedon.” Wilson and his concert production team are adept at staging his work live, setting the mood with long dissonant ambient sounds, muted lighting and surrealistic imagery projected on a stunning high definition screen. As with earlier shows in the tour, the lighting techniques were clever and colorful. Sound was crisp and clear, reproduced by the top-notch audio system, which sounded amazing in the acoustic-friendly Royal Albert Hall. Even with all the finery, the primary focus remained on the band members and guest musicians demonstrating their virtuosic skills throughout.

Änglagård, Cruise To The Edge

Anglagard_BandSax_72dpiNot my wife’s favorite, as they can be very angular, but I’m working on her! I find this band from Sweden to be on the forefront of modern progressive rock. Taking cues from King Crimson, and European peers Shylock, SFF, and Ragnarok, this band manages to hit both beautiful and melancholy sounds in perfect harmony, calling in mind things like “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic” while being completely original. Their two sets on the cruise were a rare treat given their infrequent tours. Änglagård incorporated flute and acoustic instruments, putting Anna Holmgren (flute, saxophone, Mellotron, recorder, melodica) at center stage, Tord Lindman on guitar and occasional vocals, and the rest of the talented band all anchored by Johan Brand’s confident leads on Rickenbacker bass. Their live performances are more fluid and accessible than on record, as is true of the best bands.

Martin Barre, Cruise To The Edge
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This long time Jethro Tull guitarist led his crack band of blues-rockers through a roots-oriented show, focusing on new songs from his latest solo album, the excellent return to form Back To Steel. A follow-up morning gig featured more Tull classics including a very condensed version of a Tull epic they called “Thin As A Brick” after which Martin expressed the desire to carry on indefinitely, threatening to play the 1973 opus A Passion Play backwards! On the new album and in concert, vocalist and second guitarist Dan Crisp shines, bringing his own style to the new tracks, and the older Tull songs. Clearly, all members of the band, which included skilled drummer George Lindsay and veteran bassist Alan Thomson were in fine form. Martin looked happy and relaxed, joking that it was the first gig they played on coffee, and announcing, “Thank you for choosing us over porridge…were going to be the best breakfast you ever had!” Truer words…

Gryphon Fly Again

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Gryphon recorded 5 albums from 1971-1977, each with a slightly different contemporary take on traditional English folk music including medieval and Renaissance era sounds, and original compositions, which blended instruments like bassoon, crumhorn, recorders and mandolin, with modern electric bass, guitar, and keyboards. We had the rare opportunity to see their reunion show earlier this year, which was a consistent display of virtuosity from each of the skilled multi-instrumentalists. Drummer Dave Oberle and Brian Gulland occasionally sang in rich bass and baritone voices undiminished by their long absence from the stage. Dave’s work on drums and percussion, along with bass player Jon Davie anchored the songs with rumbling toms, and a thick and varied bottom end. Guitarist Graeme Taylor spent the evening seated with his acoustic guitar front and center, adding shimmering rhythms and leads to the music. Relative newcomer Graham Preskett filled in on all sorts of instruments including the only electronic keyboard, along with guitar, violin and winds. Founder Richard Harvey and Brian led with solo and dueling winds and traditional keyboards, each thrilling the audience with their display of talent. Richard’s lightening fast leads on recorders bring honor to a sometimes-maligned instrument. Brian’s skill on the bassoon is a fun listen – certainly something you won’t often hear elsewhere. And, you haven’t seen anything in progressive folk/rock until you witness two expert crumhorn players duel with rapid-fire counterpoint!

Camel’s Long Journey, Rambin’ Man Festival

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Founding guitarist Andrew Latimer’s shows a rare restraint, like contemporaries Eric Clapton and David Gilmour, wringing powerful emotion from every note, never crowding the measure. On top of this, he sings and plays flute, and these skills were all on display at the summer festival. He traded leads and harmonies with Colin Bass (who makes everything he does look easy, paired with Denis on drums) and shared solos with keyboard wizard Ton, who was in great form. Although this was a great show, the band was rushed offstage, seeming to be surprised at the shorter time they were allotted. Prior nights on this brief tour included a three track set from Dust and Dreams (1991) a keyboard instrumental, and “Long Goodbyes” from Stationary Traveller, (1984), one of our favorites, none of which they were able to play. The rush seemed unnecessary; the stage time allotted to the comparatively pedestrian Scorpions would have fit Camel’s entire set list. It was not an arrangement befitting one of Britain’s most talented musical outfits. Nonetheless Camel packed a punch during their truncated 80 minute set and made the trip to England special for us.

Alan Parsons at Club Nokia

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Alan Parsons and his supremely talented band played the Nokia Club in Los Angeles, performing in town for the first time in 6 years on June 11, 2015. The group was at the absolute top of their game, driving through a set list that included many of their hits recorded over the years as The Alan Parsons Project, and in particular highlighting one of their most popular albums, The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980). Parsons and his musicians were all in a great spirit, reproducing the sound of the studio records with pinpoint accuracy but also with some improvisation, and room to demonstrate virtuosity. The band on this night were: Alastair Greene (guitar), Dan Tracey (guitar), Guy Erez (bass), Danny Thompson (drums), Tom Brooks (keyboards), Todd Cooper (lead vocals, saxophone, cowbell J), and long time vocalist P.J. Olsson who just nails the delicate, emotive vocals of songs like “Time” and “Old and Wise” –truly wonderful.

Robert Plant’s Still Got It!

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Robert Plant totally rocked the BottleRock festival in Napa California on May 30, 2015. We brought a dozen friends along for our birthday weekend, and went in with mixed expectations – knowing he would do some of his own material and of course some Led Zeppelin classics and generally just hoping to see this rock n’ roll legend perform at his best. From the start we were actually a bit shocked at how incredible the show was. Robert opened with “The Wanton Song” an old Zeppelin classic, performed pretty much as originally recorded. What followed was a mix of his solo work, covers, and Zeppelin songs, including “Black Dog”, “The Lemon Song”, “What Is and What Should Never Be” and others. During Robert’s rendition of “Going To California” a 20 something woman behind me started to cry and I realized what an impact Zeppelin’s music and Robert’s vocal prowess have meant to generations.

Dungen’s Groove

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Swedish band Dungen’s sound has softened a bit over the years since the debut in 2001. Since it’s music that’s hard to describe, it’s best to listen to a few tracks. Check out this video for “Akt Dit” which sports an intro and melody reminiscent of French duo Air. Or for an earlier more challenging psychedelic track try “Högdalstoppen” from the album Skit I Allt (2010). While the majority of songs are more pastoral and melodic, each show has at least one long instrumental “freak out” such as “Högdalstoppen.” Best to salve the dissonance with a typical follow up track such as “Satt Att Se” which sports a nice animated video. As if to confirm the difficulty one has describing their sound, front man Gustav Ejstes explains on their website that the 2010 album Skit I Allt “is about a certain feeling: you’re with your friends and mates, all hanging out till 6 in the morning. You’re the last one left at the party and you call this person that you want to be with. They’re asleep, but they still say, ‘Ah, fuck it, come over.’ It’s that feeling.”

Kansas Carry On…. In Valencia, California

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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. The good news is, as seen carrying on this year, Kansas is definitely back and ready to roll.

Ty Segall’s Glam and Grind

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Ty Segall is a 27 year old indie rock wunderkind from San Francisco. Ty has released eight studio albums, beginning with 2008’s Ty Segall and continuing thru to 2014’s rocker Manipulator, building a solid fan base over these last seven years. In addition, he has released more than two-dozen singles and EP’s and played on as many albums by other indie bands. We caught up with him at the Great American Music Hall last January. From the first note it was clear that Ty’s punk roots remain strong. Hard core fans populated a mosh pit up front, slowing to rapt attention only during some of the new numbers, and building to a fever on the rest. The performance was energetic and unrelenting, as Ty, dressed in workman’s jump suit attacked both guitar and vocal leads with aplomb, recalling an early, angular Pete Townsend, though channeling less anger, more excitement (he is from California after all).

Blancmange Semi-Detached

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Blancmange recently completed a two-night live stint at The Red Gallery in London. We were fortunate to be over from San Francisco, to catch the first of these on Friday May 15, 2015. Blancmange last made it to my city by the bay way back in the early 1980’s when I felt similarly fortunate to catch a show at the Old Waldorf. There we witnessed Neil Arthur (vocals, haircut, quirky moves), Stephen Luscombe (keyboards) and David Rhodes (guitar, rhythm) play along with a reel to reel tape, backup singers, and a harried drummer who had occasional trouble keeping up with the pace of Stephen’s drum machine. It was a fantastic show – one of my favorite memories of 80’s era “new wave” concerts we attended in and around San Francisco. Blancmange is now primarily the vehicle for singer Neil Arthur and his current day electronic music. Founding partner Stephen Luscombe is said to be ill, unable to join on this album and live shows that follow. For the concert, long time guitarist and collaborator David Rhodes, was present once again. It was a fun show from these talented artists.

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David Gilmour, Heart, Of Montreal, Yes, Marillion, Three Friends, PFM, Moon Safari, Haken, Steeleye Span, Robin Trower, U.K., Mew, Billy Idol, Paula Frazier, Tempest, Midge Ur, Magma, Blue Oyster Cult, Simon Phillips and David Pack were all excellent as well – we feel blessed to have seen more than three dozen incredible artists perform in concert this year.

Honorable mention must go to Madonna, who brought her stage extravaganza to the bay area this year. Her shows are akin to Las Vegas productions, much like veteran diva Cher, complete with hi-def video, large band, dancers, and lots of props and production value. It was a fantastic show – the only pop oriented band of the year, owing to the fact that I am buried in 1970’s history at the moment, finishing a book on that era’s defining rock concerts. From here forward, we have a definite plan to put away the AARP card, and get out to hear more new bands. We are already set to include Beach House, Ra Ra Riot, Muse, and many more.

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I’m also happy to be learning more about how to take concert photos at these shows. Artina does some, and has a great eye, and I’m trying to catch up. Last several shows I’m using the “bridge camera” Lumix FZ-1000 and liking the results. Given I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the greatest photographers of the rock era this year, it’s been an inspiration!  Happy New Year to you and yours….. Doug

Kansas Return to Form

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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.

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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 KansasArticleWilliams2015departure 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.

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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.

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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.

KansasArticlePlatt2015From 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.

David Pack At Home in Napa

Pack_NapaCrossroadsDavid Pack is the composer, producer and multi-talented musician who led the progressive rock band Ambrosia with his superb songwriting, vocals and guitar. The group recorded five albums and staged numerous tours over the years. Since that time, David released several quality solo albums, which reflect his love of melodic inventive pop, with R&B and jazz sensibilities, and rich vocal harmonies. Concurrently, David’s had a successful second career as a Grammy winning record producer, including among others Phil Collins, Kenny Loggins, Aretha Franklin, Wynonna, and has been a Music Director of global stage events including both of President Clinton’s Inaugurals and events for Barbara Streisand, Elton John, and Billy Joel. Of all these events, one of his most cherished projects was to honor his friend, mentor, and godfather of his oldest daughter, Leonard Bernstein by doing a contemporary pop version of West Side Story with 27 of the world’s biggest stars doing his arrangements and production to raise money for Grammy in the Schools and Bernstein’s BETA education fund. Of additional note to prog fans is David’s long association with Alan Parsons including his appearances on several of Alan’s albums, and the Walk Down Abbey Road U.S. and Japan tours, among other collaborations.

Most recently David wrote and recorded with a large number of musicians including Ray Manzarek (The Doors) Todd Rundgren, Alan Parsons, and many other luminaries, to create David Pack’s Napa Crossroads (2014). Last month at Napa’s BottleRock festival David assembled a band to present at least one of his new tracks, along with hits from Ambrosia and those of three additional contemporary lead singers, famous for their work in Kansas, Chicago, and Survivor. We were there for the show with friends and family, and had a fun afternoon rocking out to these classics. I had the opportunity to talk to David about Napa Crossroads, and his BottleRock tour date.

Pack2_72dpiThe Napa Crossroads album represents a return to form as it includes some prog-based sounds alongside an eclectic mix of folk, jazz and rock influences. The song “Silverado Free” is a highlight with keyboard and spoken word from The Doors alum Ray Manzarek. “Progressive music has always been a part of my life,” says Pack. “It lives in me. I’m steeped in classic music. Thinking of Ray and how artistically incredible he was – I wanted to challenge him so I wrote the song in 6/4. He lived on Silverado Trail, so I worked that into the song. It turns out to be his last great recording – It’s my favorite track and meaningful to me.”

Pack3_72dpiWhile David is preparing to present the new album live, he’s also been arranging concerts that showcase his hits alongside those of his contemporaries, and this is what we saw at BottleRock. Explains Pack, “Napa Crossroads Live is a brand I’m building, so we can bring in legendary stars for a collaborative effort, just like the CD. It’s another way of telling my brothers from my generation: ‘here is a way for us to come together and play.’ Its reflective of how much I love Napa Valley and want to be an ambassador to it – bringing the upscale wine enthusiast together with a different demographic.”

David performed two mega-hits originally recorded with Ambrosia, “You’re The Only Woman” and “Biggest Part of Me” along with “Every Time I Look At You,” one of the new songs recorded with Silver Oak Cellars CEO David Duncan who joined David on stage. The band was in great form, and each of four main vocalists played a few of their most popular songs. Of particular note, David’s voice is undiminished by time, and he remains one of our greatest vocal talents (and quite a skilled guitarist it must be said!) In anticipation of the show, David shared the plan. “The preference of the BottleRock promoters, and the assumption is, the fans are going to want to hear our hits. So its under our banner of Napa Crossroads Live, but you are going to see Bill Champlin of Chicago and Sons of Champlin doing his hits [“Hard Habit to Break”], John Elefante doing Kansas hits [“Point of Know Return, “Dust In The Wind” and “Carry On My Wayward Son”], and Jim Peterik performing several songs from his playbook [“Hold On Loosely” and  “Eye of the Tiger].” We are backed by a superstar band, which includes Kenny Arnoff (drums), Alex Al (bass), Tom Brooks (keys) and Dave Coyle (guitar). I’m the host – the invitee – so I asked all these guys to play, and we’ll present our popular songs – we’ve done this show before, sometimes with other artists, and it’s been a blast.”

Pack1_72dpiThe concert was indeed special as each of the vocalists presented at their best and celebrated in style. There wasn’t time to dig deeper into back catalogs for more rare tracks, but when time permits in the future we expect David will include more of his progressive and rocking material. “I am tired of promoters calling me asking if I would perform in some kind of ‘Yacht Rock’ band – I would rather put my hand on a burner than to see myself on YouTube under the that banner” says Pack.

David’s next project will be to capture the Napa Crossroads material live: “What we’re working on now is a PBS special for Soundstage – it’s in the making. We’ll do a concert in Napa Valley then hopefully tour it. It’s an artistic endeavor – the art of fine winemaking, and the music that follows.”

Here’s hoping for that video and tour. In the meantime, for those unable to catch David live, but appreciate adventurous music, try out some of his past and present work. Highly recommended from two different eras: Ambrosia’s Somewhere I Never Travelled (1976) and David Pack’s Napa Crossroads (2013).

Pack_SINT_72dpi

 

Kansas Miracles

Kansas_Miracles_CoverThe 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.

Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show
Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show

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!”

Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show
More promos from live album, Two for the Show

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.

Kansas_Kerry_CJ
Kerry Livgren*

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

Steve Walsh*
Steve Walsh*

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.

Robbie Steinhardt*
Robbie Steinhardt*

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.

Steve's Acrobatics!*
Steve’s Acrobatics!*

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