Sunday, November 14, 2004

Off to see Kansas:

I'm going to see Kansas tonight at the Keswick theater in Glenside, PA. They are, hands down, the greatest progressive rock, well at least the greatest American progressive rock band. This is the fifth time I've seen them. I try to see them every time they come around to my area and when I'm free.

Not every progressive rock fan shares my enthusiasm about Kansas. 1/3 of them aren't even aware that Kansas play progressive rock (because they are best known for their 2-monster hits, Carry on Wayward Son, and Dust in the Wind, although solid commercial rock songs, are not exactly representative of the genre that they play in. But ironically, those songs made them all of their $ and continue to sustain them to this day). 1/3 of progressive rock fans that I speak with are aware that, yes, Kansas play progressive rock, but consider them to be more of a "second-rate" prog. rock band, certainly not in the same league as Genesis, Yes, ELP, and King Crimson (the British originators of the genre). And finally 1/3 of the progressive rock fans I encounter share my enthusiasm for Kansas.

Progressive rock is characterized by a greater level of musicianship, long and often considered "self-indulgent" song forms (suite form), and odd time signatures. Kansas certainly has all that. Some prog. rock players aren't just good musicians, but virtuosos that could give the greatest classical musicians a run for their money. Indeed, Keith Emerson (man, I'm itching to see him again. I saw ELP in '91) of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Rick Wakeman of Yes, are both classically trained virtuosos. Kansas doesn't play at quite that level. They have a saying about their musicianship: "Nobody's a virtuoso; but nobody's a slouch."

There are 3 distinct things about Kansas that make them special, in my mind.

1. Steve Walsh's voice: One of the greatest of all times. I can't quite describe it in words. Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett once said that Walsh possessed the "perfect, white rock voice." The bad news is that Walsh's voice doesn't sound like it did in the '70's and probably never will (the early to mid-90's were a low point for Walsh's voice; he sounded God-awful on Live at the Whiskey). The silver-lining is that, even though his voice doesn't sound quite like it used to, it is now sounding better than it has in years. Getting off drugs & alcohol, and living a life-style that includes running regularly some 20 miles at a time (literally) I guess has helped to whip his voice back into shape and keep him fit & trim for a guy in his early 50s.

2. Kerry Livgren's writing: Livgren is the genius composer behind Kansas. He's since become a born-again Christian and a minister, but still writes for the band (and plays on their records). But he doesn't tour with them. Why? He doesn't have to. He wrote their two smash hits. And if you know about the quirks of the music business and copyright law, the writers of hit songs get the brunt of the royalties from the hits (that means in bands, not all of the $ is split equally). In addition to writing their two-hits, he also has composed most of their hard-core progressive rock tunes as well. Songs like Journey from Mariabronn, Song for America, and The Pinnacle, and No One Together are some of the greatest progressive rock tunes ever penned.

3. The playing & the musical arrangements: With Guitars, keyboards, violin, bass, & drums, odd-time signatures, "suite-form" songs, Kansas do not sound like a typical rock band. "Symphonic" is term, commonly used to describe the heavy, classical music-inspired sound that many progressive rock bands, like Yes, emit. I think a more accurate term, at least in Kansas's case, would be "electric chamber music." Their tunes are very "line-oriented" and are carefully arranged more like chamber music, as opposed to "you play this chord for this many beats."

[Note: Steve Morse, virtuoso guitarist for the fusion band, the Dixie Dregs, coined the term "electric chamber music," and in fact, writes in that style. Morse also briefly played in Kansas in the '80s. Although the Dixie Dregs are more of a virtuostic band than Kansas, there are similarities in their styles, particularly in the "line-oriented" way of composing and arranging the music, and in the guitar/keys/violin/bass/drums instrumentation. Unfortunately, when Morse was with Kansas in the '80s, the record companies pressed hard for commercial hits, and they thus adopted a more commercial "album-oriented" sound (for instance, they ditched the violin!). And those two albums, although not bad, were not what they could have been.]

Kansas's first five studio albums are a must for any serious progressive rock fan. Although they have other good stuff (as well as some bad stuff), that was the band's peak period:

Song for America
Point of Know Return

[Update: It rocked, of course. Walsh's voice was a little rough. But everything else was great. Best part of the show: they played Magnum Opus, in the words of Rush, one of the coolest progressive rock songs ever done.]