Kansas Expo Center
July 2, 2016
Words by Jeb Wright
Photo by Mark Schierholz
Grammar by Brad Neville
Point of Know Return | Paradox | Play the Game Tonight | The Wall | Reason To Be | Dust in the Wind | Miracles Out of Nowhere | Icarus - Borne on Wings of Steel | Closet Chronicles | Hold On (with Kerry Livgren) | Down the Road | Belexes | Portrait (He Knew) | Sparks of the Tempest (with Robby Steinhardt)
Fight Fire With Fire | Carry On Wayward Son (With Robby Steinhardt)
It was to be an event unlike any other in Topeka, Kansas. Hometown heroes and multi-platinum selling rock band Kansas were to descend upon Kansas Avenue with the streets blocked off in the heart of Topeka to celebrate the band’s illustrious career and the city’s renovation of the downtown area. People were excited, and it seemed everyone you talked to said they were going to be there.
Then it rained… and rained some more.
The event was moved indoors to the Kansas Expo Center, a fine venue, but not the hoped for street celebration. Still… this was Kansas in their hometown. The fan club, The Wheatheads, were there in droves, as were high school buddies of the band, former members of the band and legions of Kansas fans who love the fact this band emerged this very town. It is also the town where I was born. Seeing as that is the case… and I write about rock music… and I, over the years, have gotten to know some of the guys… and the crew… and people on the inner circle… I am not going to do a normal, dry, objective review. Instead, I’m going to just tell you that Kansas is a great band, a true rock ‘n’ roll family made up of an impressive team of dedicated professionals. I’m talking about the guys on stage, the guys who set the stage, the lighting guys, the instrument guys, the sound guys… the bus driver... everyone. Kansas is a band… a damn fine band and organization.
On this night, two of the seven musicians on stage are founding members of Kansas. They are drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Richard Williams. In Topeka, among my age group, they are heroes… they are certainly my heroes. From grade school on, I have lived and breathed each album release—even a couple discs that most people did not live and breathe. I‘ve loved them all. Therefore, I am very much looking forward to the release this September of The Prelude Implicit, the band’s first release in 16 years.
The way this band is performing, led by the two original dudes, is scary good, and this writer is ready for an album that will have The Wheatheads doing flips. Trust me when I say it… this is a great record… just listening to the snips of songs the band released- I am excited. Speaking to Phil at the hotel about the album, I witnessed first-hand how ‘into it’ the guys are. This is not just another record release by a band the used to be something big. Kansas may have originated in the 1970s, but rest assured they are not sitting around waiting to retire. No, this band is as excited about the new music as much as their fans. This new release is a statement of what Kansas means in the year 2016… and it is a mighty statement at that! Unfortunately, on this soggy wet night in July, none of the new songs were played. The band is being patient… but it’s driving us crazy! I promise this is a case of good things coming to those who wait!
This night, I arrived at the venue after delivering Papa Murphy’s pizzas to my friend (and the friend of the stars) Mark Prellwitz in Topeka (it was 50 bucks worth of pizza, Mark… I think I got two damn pieces)! After hanging at Mark’s for a few hours, Rich and Debbie Williams had to leave for sound check. A few hours later, Mark, his girlfriend, Teresa Stous and two Kansas fans, Michael and Terri Wold, packed into his brother’s Suburban and drove to the venue and parked. We entered through the backstage doors, saying, “Hello” to anyone we recognized, including Mark Schierholz, the guy who took the photos for this review. Next, my friend, Dr. Craig Keever (all the way from Arkansas to witness this event) and I hit the floor running as my cell phone was blowing up with people I had not seen in years. An opening blues band did a fine job as I greeted old friends.
It had already been a great day before even one note of Kansas music had been performed. That said, when the band took the stage and opened with one of their biggest hits, “Point of Know Return,” Kansas -in Kansas- was rocking!
The band has grown to a seven-piece ensemble. Joining Rich and Phil are long time Kansas members Billy Greer on bass guitar and David Ragsdale on violin. Ronnie Platt is now the singer in Kansas (more on him later), while keyboardist David Manion and newest member, guitarist Zak Rizvi, round out the stage and fill in the sound.
This version of Kansas is a spectacle to behold. They look good on stage and the sound they pump out is freaking unreal. This lineup is capable of pulling out any song, from any era of the band and performing it to perfection. While the die-hard purists to the original six may never accept anything else, the rest of us -the ones who want to see Kansas music forever alive and thriving- are in awe of this lineup. Plus, tonight, we got a special bonus when Kansas alums Kerry Livgren and Robby Steinhardt graced the stage for a song or two.
“Paradox” was second up in a set list that was heavy on the Point of Know Return album (six+ songs in total). Seeing as this is my favorite Kansas album, I could not have been happier. What I term the first Non-Steve Walsh Era was represented early on with “Play the Game Tonight” and in the encore with “Fight Fire With Fire.” Each tune was true to the original recording for the most part, but each track also had added flair. David Manion added a sweet intro on the keys to “Play the Game Tonight,” while “Fight Fire with Fire” had some extra guitar solos, which was alright by me!
After the hit song “The Wall,” featuring that classic Richard Williams guitar solo, the band took time to trot out the acoustics. We got the band’s most known song in addition to a rarity. The deep album cut “A Reason to Be” from the album Monolith was first, followed by “Dust in the Wind.” The crowd enjoyed the softer side of the band, as did I, but to be honest I was ready to rock! It didn’t take long as three rockers followed, “Miracles Out of Nowhere,” “Icarus-Borne on Wings of Steel” and “Closet Chronicles” which had the prog fans moving and drooling.
Original member and chief songwriter, Kerry Livgren, made a guest appearance and performed the big hit from the album Audio Visions “Hold On.” Anytime Kerry takes the stage the fans love it, and this trip to center stage was no exception. He may have missed a note or two which we expected to hear in the guitar solo, but the fact that Kerry has somewhat recuperated after suffering a debilitating stroke a few years ago is a blessing; he had lost the ability to use limbs and speech.
After Kerry took a bow, the band then went back to 1975’s Song for America and brought out “Down the Road” and proceeded to play their asses off. Next up was the very complex “Belexes” from the debut album, with a bit of the guitar solo to “Lightning’s Hand” weaved into the middle -making that the seventh track from Point to make an appearance on this night. “Portrait (He Knew)” is always a crowd pleaser, and is one of the best tunes in the Kansas Kannon. “Sparks of the Tempest” ended the show with guest vocalist Robby Steinhardt stepping up to the microphone to huge applause. At the end of the song, band members, one by one, perform and record / loop their ending notes and set their instruments down while the song continues to be pumped through the P.A., as they wave and exit the stage. This is a maneuver the band has used in the past… it’s still a cool trick in the present day.
Moments later,Kansas returned to the stage, and their encore began with “Fight Fire with Fire” led by vocalist Ronnie Platt. At the Phil Ehart crescendo, Robby meandered back out to center stage and the band broke into the a cappella beginning of “Carry On Wayward Son.” This is a song that will go down in history as one of the best tunes from the decade of the 1970s; and considering that decade has Led Zeppelin, Queen, AC/DC, Aerosmith and Pink Floyd hits all over it, among other huge bands... well, that just demonstrates just how damn good this song -and band- truly is. Kansas deserves all the adulation they’ve received, and tonight they proved it.
Newest member Zak Rizvi is a nice addition. Kansas has a full time second guitarist. He sticks to mainly rhythm now, but that’s going to change as he was very involved in recording the new album. Just wait until you see what the ‘new guy’ can do!
Keyboardist David Manion is just a musician’s musician. He does not ask for, nor seek, the limelight, but he is all about the sounds. He is a gifted artist and his energy, while subtle, is felt.
Multi-instrumentalist David Ragsdale is so musically gifted it is not fair! He seemingly plays the complex parts effortlessly and makes it look so damn easy. I have it on good authority he occasionally leaves his violin in his hotel room by mistake… but that story is for another time, stay tuned (so to speak)!
Billy Greer is a solid bassist and a fine vocalist; he even does a good job being the emcee! Off stage, he is, like the rest of the band, just a good human being. Billy is the bridge between eras and he has finally earned the right to NOT be the new guy in the band!
Phil Ehart may be the most underrated drummer in rock history. He does not just keep a beat… he paints a soundscape. He hits hard and fast, and he lays low and accents. He brings an element of artistic excellence to his drumming, which in turn is a huge part of the Kansas sound.
Richard Williams is the best damn guitarist that never makes a ‘best of’ list out there. He is like a master chef… he can spice up a song, add the proper accents to flavor or he can open up and serve up a dish that will leave one drooling and wanting more. Kansas music to him is his legacy and he is always there for the fans. He is both an inspirational musician and human being.
Now, none of the new guys has a more difficult job than vocalist/keyboardist Ronnie Platt. He filled the vacated spot of Steve Walsh. Some thought that feat could not be done... and most thought it could not be done this well. Platt is one of the best rock singers I have ever heard live. Just when you think he can’t give a better performance, he does. On this night, his vocals on “Closet Chronicles,” “Hold On,” “Belexes,” and “Icarus” were spellbinding. He has ‘the gift’ and he is grateful for the opportunity that he has been given.
Now, I must mention there was one point during the show where a guy in a horse head walked on stage. He had flashing lights draped over him and he danced. Is the band paying homage to the 2015 Kansas City Royals World Series Championship team, or the Kansas City traditional American Royal livestock show? Hmmm.... No one knew who this masked man was. I asked around, and band truck driver Rusty Banks told me his identity is a secret… but he says he knows him well, and he’s a good guy!
After the show we waited for my pal Mark to bring the Suburban around (hey, it was raining and there was no reason all of us should get wet, just Mark). It was back to his house for more food. Rich Williams and his wife Debbie arrived, and we talked till late into the evening… capping off a perfect night of rock and roll.
There is more to come in the future, though. Soon enough, the new album will be out and Kansas will embark upon a new tour. This is going to be a special one, too. It is to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the classic album Leftoverture and the new album The Prelude Implicit. Check out www.kansasband.com for upcoming tour dates, as well as the upcoming Leftoverture tour, which begins in the fall. For now though, this was one heck of a weekend! If the band comes your way, in my opinion you would be a fool not to go see them!
Kansas in Kansas… it just feels right.