Today, the members of Kansas are happy with just being “weekend warriors.”
Since the release of their self-titled first album in 1974, the progressive rock band has toured virtually nonstop, scoring hits such as “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind” along the way. The band’s popularity has remained strong despite a lack of new material — its last studio album, “Somewhere to Elsewhere,” came out in 2000 — thanks in part to a number of recent song placements in movies and video games, most notably “Carry On . . .” featured in Guitar Hero II and Rock Band II.
Off the bus
For guitarist Rich Williams, one of the founding members of the band, playing live is still the highlight of being in Kansas. But by this point, the band doesn’t need to travel the country on a bus for months at a time. With the exception of overseas tours, the band sticks to one-off shows on the weekends, or close to them.
“We’ve done the bus thing, and that really turns into work,” Williams said recently, on a break at home in Atlanta. “Buses are expensive, and the crews are expensive — you’ve gotta pay per diems, hotels, daily expenses for the bus, the driver, gas. And when it’s a Tuesday night and you’re in Thermopolis, Wyoming, you wind up playing a low-money gig in a club next to the bowling alley. That’s fine when you’re starting out, as a teenager or in your 20s, but we’ve done that.”
For Gazette music writer David Singer's review of this show, click here.
The next round of Kansas shows kicks off tonight with an appearance at Alive at Five at Albany’s Riverfront Park.
Though the band doesn’t have any new material to showcase, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been keeping busy. In 2009, the group celebrated the 35th anniversary of its first album with a performance at Washburn University’s White Concert Hall alongside the school’s orchestra.
The performance reunited the current lineup of the band — featuring Williams, drummer Phil Ehart, keyboardist and vocalist Steve Walsh, violinist David Ragsdale and bassist Billy Greer — with former members Kerry Livgren, one of the band’s main songwriters over the years, and guitarist Steve Morse, currently of Deep Purple.
Neither of the two former members had performed together onstage before, having played in the band during different eras. Livgren officially left Kansas in 1983, although he has continued to occasionally play with the band in the ensuing years and still writes songs for them, including all of “Somewhere to Elsewhere.” Morse was in the band from 1986 to 1988, briefly rejoining in 1991.
“It was fun — Kerry lives in Topeka; he moved back several years ago, so it was very easy,” Williams said. “Kerry wanted to drop by. Morse was different — we hadn’t seen him because he has been off with Deep Purple for a number of years. But we contacted him and he said sure, he’d love to do it, so he flew into Atlanta for rehearsal for one day. But it’s no stretch for Steve to pick up where things left off.”
Playing with orchestras
This also wasn’t the band’s first excursion into an orchestral setting — in 1998, the band released “Always Never the Same,” a collection of old favorites and new songs recorded in a studio with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Washburn University performance was also released in 2009 as a CD/DVD combo, “There’s Know Place Like Home” — a play on their “Point of Know Return” album in 1977.
In the past decade, Kansas has played shows with different professional orchestras. The band made a conscious decision to not play with a big-name orchestra this time out, instead choosing to work with a collegiate orchestra from the university where many of Kansas’ members got their start.
“We knew we wanted to document us playing with a symphony ever since we did the album 13 years ago, and we could go to Cleveland and play with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, but that didn’t really mean anything to us,” Williams said.
“Sometimes working with a, quote-unquote, professional city orchestra — we love doing it, but I will say there has been a time or two when it’s been a little disappointing. Maybe it’s an attitude thing — if they’re on salary, it’s what they have to do, and maybe they don’t like it; they think they’re better than that, they have a bit of an attitude about it. It’s not hard to imagine symphony players that have an attitude. There’s been instances where they didn’t put any effort into it, and we showed up and they sucked.”
The experience with the Washburn Symphony Orchestra was much better, Williams said.
“What you get when you play at a college — you get great players, a lot of them on scholarships, but you get great enthusiasm,” he said. “The college made it part of the curriculum, and that enthusiasm is very infectious.”
It was so infectious that the band decided to take the concept of playing with college orchestras on the road. From September through January, the band performed at colleges throughout the country, playing with the orchestras to help raise awareness of collegiate music programs. Most of the tour proceeds went to college music programs, and the tour sponsor, guitar string company D’Addario, donated musical equipment to the colleges where the band performed.
“People always know about a school’s football team, but there’s not much emphasis on the music department,” Williams said. “We also do a scholarship fund for the schools. We love doing it for the kids. They get so much out of it; it’s something outside of the box of the regular part of the curriculum.”
No new album
Though the band is enjoying performing both by itself, as the Alive at Five show will be, and with orchestras (more collegiate shows are planned for next year), a new album is a long shot at this point. Neither Livgren or Walsh, the band’s main songwriters, are interested in writing more songs at this point, Williams said. The rest of the band, sans Walsh, convened in 2009 as Native Window, releasing an album with Greer on lead vocals.
“It has been kind of a source of frustration,” Williams said. “Without their input, it makes it a lot harder. That’s why the four of us did the Native Window project — let’s just do something else, something creative, try to do something completely different, and then we can come back to a Kansas album. Now, we’re still back in the same boat; we need something new.”
One option the band has discussed is writing and recording one or two songs at a time, releasing them online or at shows.
“Who says we have to do an album?” Williams said. “That’s an old school approach, anyway. We could record one new song, chart it out like we did with the symphony, and release it as a download to create interest, go to the studio and record two new songs. Just do a few new things. . . . We don’t have to eat the whole apple; we can just take a bite or two.”