Kansas has been on their 40th anniversary tour for a while now, going on two years. Though some are unfamiliar with the hectic changes time and God hath wrought upon the band, not many are aware of the recent change to the lead singer/keyboardist’s position. For a majority of Kansas fans, Steve Walsh IS Kansas, a gyrating, keyboard thrashing center of attention, with a set of vocal cords that put most seventies yelpers to shame. It was pretty much unthinkable for him to leave, but the wholesale lineup upheavals that plagued the band since the mid 80’s saw Steve exiting the frontman position in the middle of a tour with basically no explanation. Peculiar to say the least.
This brings us to the recent New York appearance by the band. The above quote in the title was overheard in the bar after the show ended. Nobody corrected him because you see, very quietly Steve Walsh left the band a few weeks ago, and Kansas kept that news kind of quiet. Hardly anyone knew. They kept it so quiet they almost mumbled the details as they introduced new singer Ronnie Platt halfway through the show. Even then, some in the crowd were unaware it was not Steve. But Ronnie, from the Chicago area cover band Arra fills the shoes of Steve Walsh nicely. Anyone familiar with Kansas’ Live at the Whisky 1992 live album is aware of the vocal problems plaguing Walsh over the last two decades–straining to hit notes, little power and a general uncomfortable sensation wondering if the next note would be his last. These problems have not abated in the recent decade, and the casual fan is left to wonder if he quit or was thrown out of the band. Either way, most fans are fairly disappointed that the big 40th tour is now a celebration being held by the guitarist and the drummer. Sparse lineup.
Kansas has been held together by (old time) newcomers Billy Greer on bass (joined 1985) and Dave Ragsdale on vioiin (joined 1991) for the better part of two decades. Robbie Steinhardt, the original violinist, bailed in 1982, Kerry Livgren, the wildly talented lead guitarist and widely regarded leader of the band left in 1983 (he did return briefly in 1990-1). Founding bassist Dave Hope left with Livgren (they had both become devoted Christians and became born again after Monolith in 1979, essentially tearing the band apart from the inside. After dabbling in the dense Urantia Book for answers, LIvgren fell headlong into Christianity on tour in 1979). The horrors of post Monolith Kansas were largely ignored by most, when with John Elefante (another devout evangelist) on vocals (joined in 1982), the band essentially became a modern day Christian rock band. Only the religiously converted and the extremely fanatical stayed on board. The odd addition of the Dixie Dreg’s Steve Morse in 1985 saw a brief flicker of interest rekindled, while few noticed Walsh’s return, a return that lasted nearly 30 years. The band became a fairground and casino circuit draw, rubbing elbows with Foghat and such.
The unexpected and untimely departure of Walsh led to a lineup consisting of the above mentioned Ragsdale and Greer, along with surviving founding members drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Richie Williams. The lighting guy was depped in to play (nearly inaudible) keyboards, and Ronnie Platt on keys and vocals round out the sextet. The band stage lineup look was sparse, and the stage had a PA hung from the ceiling left and right, with no supplemental speaker columns on stage. No stage monitors or guitar amplifiers graced the stage for any of the instruments, lending a further sparseness to the air. ‘Is this a band on extreme budget tour?’ was a queston that came to mind.
But there is more to Kansas than Dust in the Wind, their signature but unrepresentative major hit. On a good day in the mid 70’s, Kansas were quite a musical phenomenon. An Americanized version of Yes and other British prog bands, they were able to give many bands a run for their money. Like some Jr. Varsity Mahavishnu Orchestra, Kansas could change keys, time signatures and instruments in seconds, stopping on a dime and leaving change. Many forget the power these guys were capable of mustering in their heyday of 1974-1979. Much of that muscle was still on display this week, as the remnants of Kansas were the backdrop for the new vocalist showing off his chops. Ronnie Platt was the real highlight of the evening, a flawless imitation of Walsh in 1975 at the height of his powers, giving the band a strange dichotomy. A depleted Kansas with a faltering lead vocalist is but a shadow of a former monolithic band, but still original. A replacement vocalist that acts and sings so much like Walsh that some didn’t even notice it was a new guy? Well that’s pretty damn good too.
Old songs mixed with newer ones-Point of Know Return, the achingly beautiful Song For America, Belexes and Closet Chronicles rubbed elbows with clunkers like Fight Fire With Fire, Hold on and Play the Game from their Christian era. But the overwhelming power of their original material won the day. Dave Ragsdale doubled on guitar for some tunes, enabling the dueting Livgren and Williams used to such good effect. The obligatory Carry on My Wayward Son rounded out the evening (a song that is diabolically difficult to play or sing) leaving the crowd stomping and chanting.
Final note-in lieu of merchandise, two large posters with the band’s URL graced the lobby. No shirts, no hoodies, no DVDs, no CDs, nothing. Fan reactions varied from miffed to genuinely annoyed. “How hard is it to pay a guy to sell a thousand bucks worth of shirts per night? Really?” Sparse again.
Yet out of the sparseness still was a solid backbone of a band that changed many people’s lives forever. And despite the best efforts to dismantle it through muddle headed decisions and overt religious flourishes (Robbie Steinhardt used to complain openly that the band had gone from good time partying to holding prayer meetings before shows), Kansas is still a very entertaining proposition. As they once said in Closet Chronicles: “I heard the king is dying, I heard the king is dead”. Pretend you don’t know it’s a new singer, close your eyes and prepare to be impressed. Not dead yet. Wheatheads rejoice!
Update, February 2016
I was down in Florida recently and noticed on a billboard that Steve Walsh was touring this spring, opening for the John Payne version of Asia. If Steve is healthy enough to be touring, well……one can hope, can’t one?