Tag Archives: leftoverture

Kansas Return to Form

KansasArticleAll2015

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.

Phil Ehart

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.

KansasArticle2015

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.

Steve Walsh
Steve Walsh

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.

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