Kansas Retrospective

by Jason Warburg


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Some months ago there was a lively discussion on the Daily Vault staff writers’ e-mail list about the criteria for choosing featured artists for our monthly retrospectives.  A consensus formed that the artist chosen should meet two or more of these criteria: 1) groundbreaking, 2) influential, 3) large sales, 4) longevity, 5) historical/representative of a specific era or style of music.  There was also the sixth “X ingredient,” as identified by the inimitable Duke Egbert: “some damn fool is willing to do the majority of the work.”

Kansas, the Midwestern prog-rockers gone arena rockers gone 80s power balladeers and back around again -- and still on the road in 2008 -- were groundbreaking and influential within a limited frame of reference: they were the first true American progressive rock band.  As such, they helped pave the way for current U.S. prog bands like Dream Theater and Spock's Beard.  They also excelled at longevity -- 34 years of steady recording and touring with just one three-year break -- and in strongly representing a specific era or style of music.  The era is the late 1970s, and the style is a meld of classic British progressive rock with Midwestern AOR into a sort of "arena prog" most notably practiced by Kansas and its closest contemporary, Styx.

Those factors -- and the dedicated advocacy of this month’s “damn fool,” Staff Writer Bruce Rusk -- were more than enough to land Kansas the gig as the Daily Vault’s October 2008 Artist Of The Month.

Often incorrectly lumped in with more commercial AOR groups like Journey and Foreigner, Kansas in its late ‘70s heyday shared their flair for catchy hooks, but has through most of its career been a much more ambitious and cerebral band with a much more unique sound.  A *big* sound, as exemplified by the band’s original six-man lineup of Kerry Livgren (guitars/vocals), Rich Williams (guitars), Steve Walsh (vocals/keyboards), Dave Hope (bass), Phil Ehart (drums) and Robby Steinhardt (violin/vocals).

The twin guitars, Walsh’s bold organ work and dramatic vocals, and Steinhardt’s violin gave an immediate power and sweep to the band’s work, as heard on its initial trio of true American prog albums, Kansas, Song For America and Masque.  It only took a slight adjustment toward a more concise and focused approach for the band to break through with 1976’s hit Leftoverture, featuring the lighter-snapping AOR staple “Carry On Wayward Son.”

Point Of Know Return followed a year later and consolidated the band’s status as one of the era’s most successful acts with the #1 single “Dust In The Wind” and the hit title track.  After a successful live album, things began to slide sideways, though, as the band began to splinter, with John Elefante replacing Walsh for 1982’s Vinyl Confessions and Steinhardt departing before 1983’s Drastic Measures, whose failure led to the band’s brief breakup.

Three years later, with Livgren by then established as a Christian Contemporary solo artist, the band reformed around Walsh, Williams and Ehart, with Billy Greer on bass and Steve Morse -- later of Deep Purple -- on guitar.  By the ‘90s, violinist David Ragsdale would join, returning the band to its original six-man format.  Livgren dropped in to contribute songs from time to time, and he and Hope and Steinhardt all returned briefly for 2000’s very solid Somewhere To Elsewhere.   Today a Kansas lineup of Walsh, Williams, Ehart, Greer and Ragsdale continues the legacy of American-flavored, big-voiced, imaginative rock.  Call it arena-prog, call it what you will.  It’s Kansas music.

This October the Daily Vault will celebrate Kansas with 22 reviews covering their entire studio catalogue, plus a smattering of live releases and a few surprises, in a retrospective that will start Thursday, October 2 and run every weekday through Friday, October 31. Most of these reviews will be appearing on the Vault for the first time.

Founded in January 1997, the Daily Vault has featured more than 5,600 reviews of more than 2,600 artists from all across the musical spectrum, written by a volunteer staff from around the world. Previous Artist Of The Month retrospectives have spotlighted the work of artists from Tori Amos to Frank Zappa, including the Beatles, David Bowie, Garth Brooks, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Metallica, Pearl Jam and many others. Themed retrospectives have included punk, hip-hop, classic soul, classic jazz, Broadway musicals and Christian Contemporary Music.

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