October 10, 2011
Last Friday evening, Jacqueline and I saw the rock group Kansas (see Web site) perform in concert at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. I have been a big fan of theirs since their heyday in the mid-to-late 1970s, and it's the second time I've seen them perform. This time they were accompanied by the James Madison University symphony orchestra, part of a promotional college tour. The staging paraphernelia was relatively modest, but the musical performance was outstanding.
We were seated in the second row, barely 15 feet away from lead guitarist Richard Williams! I was able to watch his intricate playing technique, and was really impressed with the faithful rendition of all those hits from 30+ years ago. I was paying especially close attention to how he played "Dust In the Wind," probably their best-known hit song. I learned to play that many years ago, but there is one portion (the bridge, between the second and third verses) that I never quite mastered. Now I think I'll have it down, at last. Even though I know almost all of the songs by Kansas from the 1970s, there are some songs from albums that came out in the 1980s with which I was not familiar. That really piqued my curiousity.
For anyone who is not well acquainted with the music of Kansas, it is highly original, very challenging, with complex rhythms and a number of lengthy instrumental solos. Many of their songs include rapid up-and-down scales that are reminiscent of Scottish or Irish folk tunes. It's one thing to play that kind of music in a studio environment, and another thing entirely to play it live, especially with orchestral accompaniment. I was deeply impressed by the way they played: absolutely superbly, with enthusiasm and conviction. As I wrote on Facebook after we got home on Friday night, "Kansas totally rocks!"
"All we are is Dust In the Wind."
Three of the members were originals from the 1970s: Steve Walsh (singing and playing keyboards), Rich Williams (lead guitar), and Phil Ehart (on drums). The bassist, Billy Greer, handled the announcements during the show, and emphasized how important it is to support young people in their music careers. Having been college kids during the 1970s, they are well-suited to understand, and it's admirable that they have made supporting college music departments their group's mission. (See the JMU Music Department.) Greer praised JMU violin virtuoso Anna Hennesy, who played alongside Kansas violinist Dave Ragsdale during one of their songs. They only had the afternoon to rehearse with the JMU orchestra, which is pretty remarkable. I was hoping to find an article in the college newspaper, The Breeze, in vain. Maybe later this week. By amazing coincidence, the next Kansas gig with a college orchestra will be in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with the Augustana College orchestra this Friday, on October 14. (See their tour schedule, which has the correct dates but is wrongly placed in the 2010 category due to some Webmaster's oversight.)
I took notes as each song was played, but I'm not quite certain about the second song, which was an instrumental.
The one real drawback of the concert experience was the venue, JMU's Convocation Center, which serves primarily as the home of the men's and women's basketball teams, and other indoor sports. I'd say there were about 2,000 fans in the audience, and that was simply too big for JMU's brand-new Forbes Center for the Performing Arts. That is a beautiful, modernistic building (made of the same limestone that is characteristic of other JMU buildings) located across Main Street from the JMU main campus Quad.
After the concert, the band members signed merchandise as part of the promotional fund-raising program. We had to stand in line for the better part of an hour, but I'd say it was worth it. While he was signing the T-shirt, programs, and DVD we had just bought, Billy Greer looked at me and said "Steve Jobs!" He was calling attention to the black turtleneck shirt I was wearing in honor of the late co-founder of Apple Computer, and I smiled. (See separate blog post.) He and Steve Walsh agreed that Jobs was a great man, who had a big impact on the music industry, helping to shepherd it into the digital age. I wanted to chat with them some more, but one of their managers had told us fans waiting in line that we were expressly forbidden from asking the band members to pose for photos or telling them that we saw them play in 1979. I protested, to no avail, "But I did see them play in 1979!" In any event, they were worn out from signing autographs for so long, an act of dedication which I admired. Kansas is indeed a "truly great bunch of guys," as I wrote on Facebook. So take that, Thomas Frank! (Reference to his book What's the Matter With Kansas?)
In 1979 I saw Kansas perform in concert at the (now-defunct) Capital Centre, which was located east of D.C., along the Beltway. I was sitting way in the back, too far to fully enjoy the music (lousy acoustics), but plenty close enough to appreciate the fancy light show, which included green laser beams, if my memory serves. (???) I do distinctly remember Steve Walsh belting out his songs while jumping around in high-top basketball shoes, which seemed rather odd for a "long-haired rock 'n roll band." When the Washington Post review came out a day or two later, I was irritated by the description of the spectacular concert event as "thundering dullness."
I know that many music critics look down at Kansas for the earnest ideals expressed in their songs' lyrics, and for their highly ambitious musical aspirations. Maybe their songs don't rank as classical literature, and maybe they got just a little too carried away with what they learned in their Intro to Philosophy classes. What I can say is that they established themselves as one of the best "progressive rock" groups of all time, and have endured longer than any of their "peer groups" such as Yes or Rush. They have stood the test of time over the years, becoming true "classics."
I realized after the concert that I wanted to fill in my digital collection of Kansas songs, so I went to the Apple iTunes store, from which the following list of their studio albums was derived. (Minor irritation: One of their best -- and longest -- songs, "Incomudro: Hymn to the Atman," is only available if you buy the entire Song for America album. For the time being, I'll have to hang on to the MP3 version which I ripped from my copy of the vinyl album a few years ago.) A complete Kansas discography would also include several live albums and greatest hits compilations.
The most recent Kansas album, Somewhere to Elsewhere, was the first time the original six band members had reunited in nearly two decades. (The original bassist was Dave Hope, and the original violinist was Robby Steinhardt.) From the samples I've heard on iTunes, it sounds very good, and I'll see if I can find the CD in some music store. All the songs on it were written by Kerry Livgren (see his Web site), the keyboardist/guitarist who had left the group in the early 1980s to become a Christian rock musician.