The Ultimate Kansas


Epic/Legacy, 2002

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It’s all Bruce Rusk’s fault.  This album wasn’t even scheduled to be part of our big October 2008 Kansas retrospective, but after writing up the retrospective announcement and reading Bruce’s first few reviews, I succumbed.  Sure, I had Leftoverture and Point Of Know Return on vinyl back in the day, but let’s face it… the day was a loooong time ago for me, and I had neither listened to much Kansas since, nor ever dipped further into their catalog than those two well-known albums.

The obvious solution was to pick up this two-disc collection, covering everything from the band’s self-titled 1974 debut up to the three-year break they took after 1983’s Drastic Measures.  Even then, I had no intention of writing a review; the schedule was complete and this collection wasn’t on it. 

After a few listens, though, the decision was no longer in my hands.  I had things to say, and why not add a non-Wheathead perspective to the mix?  (And yes, the whole purpose of this paragraph was just so that I could say “Wheathead.”  Is there a more memorable nickname for a group’s fans in rock and roll?)

The good news is, this is a great collection, everything the casual fan really needs from the strongest period of the band’s history.  The bad news, such as it is, is that the sequencing of this two-disc collection is downright bizarre.  For one thing, it’s neither completely random nor strictly chronological.  Each disc starts out with a familiar hit (“Carry On Wayward Son” and “Point Of Know Return”), and each is mostly self-contained in terms of time period (with one exception, disc one covers Kansas through Leftoverture, while disc two covers Point Of Know Return through Drastic Measures), but the sequence within each disc jumps all over the place.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Disc one, home to material from the group’s first three American prog discs plus the tighter and more radio-friendly Leftoverture, naturally leans to the progressive end of the band’s sound.  “Song For America,” “The Pinnacle,” “Journey From Mariabronn” and the surprisingly heavy “Death of Mother Nature Suite” all clock in at 7:50 or longer and illustrate both the sextet’s tremendous musicianship and chief songwriter Kerry Livgren’s fondness for extended British prog song structures.  The shorter songs on disc one are less memorable, but “Mysteries And Mayhem” from 1975’s Masque takes an exciting ride right into Deep Purple territory for a bit, and the thoughtful “The Wall” and rocking “What’s On My Mind” are among Leftoverture’s most memorable album tracks.  As for “Carry On My Wayward Son,” 30 years later it remains a dynamite showcase for the band’s melodic chops.

On disc two the sequencing goes from unusual to downright weird.  The very catchy arena prog of 1977’s “Point Of Know Return” (love that repeating organ/violin riff on the chorus) kicks things off on a buoyant note before switching to the ultra-serious “Cheyenne Anthem” (a leftover from Leftoverture... man, they really did mess with the sequence), which segues into the bland arena schlock of 1982’s “Fight Fire With Fire,” which drops right into 1977’s sublime #1 ballad “Dust In The Wind.”  The inspirational “Hold On” and the multipart, rather hyperactive “No One Together” from 1980’s Audio-Visions follow before you reach the nadir of Kansas’ career, the weak Foreigner wannabe “Play The Game Tonight” from 1983’s Drastic Measures.

The very pretty “Cheyenne Anthem” is also an example of how Kansas crafted truly American prog by taking a typical prog approach – a complex multi-part suite with distinct shifts in style, with a searching lyric mixing historical fact and legend – and applying it to a uniquely American theme, the destruction of the Plains Indians’ way of life.  It’s really emblematic of the heart of the Kansas sound.

Another conclusion I’ve come to after listening to this entire set a few times is that primary lead vocalist Steve Walsh might also be the most underappreciated keyboard player in rock.  He’s creative but – at least in the early going – restrained on synth, beautifully expressive on piano and simply one of the very best Hammond players ever to hit a rock and roll stage.  He and violinist Robby Steinhardt were the anchors of the band’s sound in its 70s heyday, and it’s no surprise to see that the latter-day edition of the band filled the departed Steinhardt’s slot with another dynamic violinist/vocalist, David Ragsdale.

Quibbles about sequencing aside, this is a consistently entertaining collection drawing from the strongest period of one of the most unique and powerful bands ever to emerge from the Great Plains.  My only remaining question is whether the Wheatheads have special hats like the Green Bay Cheeseheads.  Now THAT would be cool…

Rating: B+

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© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Epic/Legacy, and is used for informational purposes only.