Kansas in 2014–Sparse. “Steve Walsh is Still Amazing….Wait…What?”

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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.

When do we become original members Billy?

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?

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11 thoughts on “Kansas in 2014–Sparse. “Steve Walsh is Still Amazing….Wait…What?”

  1. The anti-Christian tone to this article was a bit much for me..who cares what someone chooses to believe as long as it is not fake and the art itself is legit.
    Ask most real Kansas fans and they will tell you it is the music mainly that matters to them..

  2. Hi Bill-
    no offense was intended. I have talked to many Kansas fans about the music over the last 35 years, and most cringe at anything post Monolith. As noted in the article, Robbie Steinhardt, a founding member, was forced out of the band by overt Christian trappings. When belief begins to overshadow the music, the art will usually suffer. Peace.

    1. The irony here is that Kerry always wrote “religious” lyrics, sadly it was only when he chose to settle on one religion in particular that some members became uptight. Kerry himself actually felt uncomfortable using Kansas as a “platform” for his new found faith and eventually left to go solo which led to AD where he could use any lyrics he wanted without censorship. The Kansas “reunion” album “Somewhere to elsewhere” from 2000 has some of Kerry’s strongest work (according to Kerry and Phil) and did not seem to suffer artistically at all because of what he believes ;>) I have found that enlightenment is one of the greatest sources of artistic inspiration, and heartbreak is the best inspiration for the blues of course ;>)

    2. History shows that art, music and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, anything but. Some of the greatest works of art and music composition were directly inspired by the Christian faith. Bands split and dissolve all the time over a variety of reasons. Yoko Ono anyone?
      Certainly, Christian principles might create a divide considering the known excesses and decadence that pervades rock music. BUT to even hint that faith is opposed to art is nonsense.

      1. Hi Blount, thank you for writing. You are correct that some of the greatest works of art-in particular painting and sculpture, were directly inspired by Christian faith. Some of the greatest works of classical music were also inspired by Christianity. I was only hinting that faith is opposed to rock n roll, which is quite different. And also true. πŸ˜‰

  3. “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. β€˜Is this a band on extreme budget tour?’ was a question that came to mind.”
    An interesting comment that perhaps deserves enlightenment. The absence of stage monitors, guitar/bass/keyboard amps and any other speakers other than flown hi-packs (midrange and treble front-of-house speakers) and subwoofers (usually on the ground out of sight) indicates the exact opposite of a “extreme budget tour”. It in fact is now the norm for these now ancient artifacts of decades past to be gone, as the musicians on stage can’t (and wouldn’t want) to hear them anyway. The vast majority of performing musicians now utilize IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) – normally custom-molded devices worn in the ear with multiple driver elements, connected to what used to drive the stage monitors. In fact, most musicians can now adjust their in-ear mix to their own liking using apps on iPhones or iPads (or leave it to the monitor engineer if they so desire). The benefits of this change from the mountains of speakers used in the past is enormous. First, IEMs afford up to 30db of noise reduction, protecting the users ears. Second,the front-of-house mix can no longer has to compete with or overcome the now gone stage monitors and back line amps, affording greater possible clarity and dynamic range to the mix. Third, they have to haul thousands of pounds less gear to achieve a much superior sound. All that said, I assure the cost of this new technology is anything but “budget”.

    1. Hi Rick-Thanks for the informed addition. Yes, you are correct that in ear mixing is now prevalent with upper tier bands, and that it is not cheap to pull off. I do disagree about the back line though. An amp onstage is part of rock n roll, having no sound onstage and only coming through an earpiece can lead to problems not easily identified.( I witnessed this at Rush-no amps onstage, and chaos-no idea what was going wrong. The next tour they had the amps back onstage). Amps onstage also give the audience a little more oomph and genuine ‘rock’ experience. The clarity the newer PA configurations with flown hi packs and hidden subwoofers delivers I find to be less satisfying. The high end is crisp, the lows are there, but the midrange, where the punch of a raw rock band exists, tends to suffer. Many clubs across the country that serve top flight touring bands still use the large stacks left and right, and these deliver the sonic wallop that is midrange heavy and generally more powerful. But you have made some excellent points, and I appreciate your clearly well informed opinion! Thanks for reading!

  4. I feel that you both make excellent points. I appreciate these valid and converse points. As a musician , I have come to enjoy the lighter more portable sound bits available. I’m sure the hanging speakers and hidden subs were part of a premium sound system (not cheap) and all that attended say the sound and performance was outstanding. I must agree however that marshal stacks and stage monitors do provide a thicker more powerful sound stage. Pat Metheny now uses approximately 12 Bose L1 modules! Talk about cost affective and easy as pie to set up. It sounds like a symphony of sound coming from everywhere and he loves it. This works for progressive, modern jazz and acoustic etc. but not progressive type rock. My 2 cents.

  5. Thank you Thomas. I’ve been a huge Metheny fan since I saw him on the American Garage tour. I saw him in 2001 in a tiny club, and told him my band’s first micromoog had a Lizzie Borden and the Axes sticker on the flight case. When we peeled it off, it said ‘Lyle Mays-Pat Metheny Group’ neatly stenciled. Pat was delighted, and said that the moog was in the rig when they still actually carried their own gear into shows πŸ˜‰

  6. Years ago right after The Point of Know Return I ran into Steve Walsh at a gas station wherein he rolled through with a brand new sports car. I didn’t recognize him directly but he seemed familiar. He commented enthusiastically on my “Cheap Trick” shirt and then I put it together who he was. He offered me a ride in his snazzy new car. Anyway That was a cool ride and conversation…. Interesting writeup and I think your intuitions are pretty solid. After The Whiskey show there were times when Walsh’s vocals improved and I think it became a matter of what particular show you caught a show as to whether he was mostly “on” or not. And let me be the first to say that I’ve always admired his vocal strength and as far as I am concerned he has a spot in the elite rock singer tier thus I make my comments from a position of respect. And even at his vocal nadir I looked past all that to the quality music that Kansas put together through they years and enjoyed all the shows I saw back in the day and those leading up to his departure. However, what I found to be puzzling was his attitude which at times could be pretty intense and pessimistic. Okay we all have a bad day now and then but over time it just got to be a bit much for me and I stopped going to Kansas shows because of it. I don’t know if he resented having to play the hits or maybe the shallow fair weather fans who would leave after hearing DITW and CWWS. I Anyway I still like Kansas very much and wish all former members of the band well including Steve Walsh. And if he is in fact touring again or is thinking about it that would be good.

  7. I saw Kansas in Evansville on October 14, 2017. The show rocked!!! It was my first Kansas show in 18 years. And it was worth the wait!
    I agree with the author of this article. Ronnie Platt sounds very similar to the Steve Walsh of the mid-to-late 70s. And this is a real-treat to the not-yet-50 crowd(who never saw Kansas live in that era).

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