By Christina Wood
Fans of the ’70s progressive rock band Kansas will be gathering at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday night for the band’s Leftoverture 40th Anniversary Tour — and they won’t all be taking a trip down memory lane.
While the majority of the band’s fan base can remember when the album Leftoverture — which will be played live in its entirety Saturday night — was first released, guitarist Richard Williams says he’s seeing quite a few younger faces in the audience on the current tour. “We’ve been in a lot of modern media – Garage Band, Guitar Hero, things like that,” Williams says by way of explanation.
The kids who discovered “Dust in the Wind” by playing video games may have kids of their own now, but there’s yet another new generation of fans. Still young and relying on someone to drive them to the show, they discovered the music thanks to the television show Supernatural, which has repeatedly featured Kansas’s iconic song “Carry On Wayward Son.”
“That’s millions of kids,” Williams says. “We did a show recently in Wisconsin; the first several rows were all these kids – 14, 13, 12. It was almost surreal. We’ve never had a young crowd.” Williams was 24 when the first Kansas album was released. Audiences were about the same age, he says. “We never had younger than us, not in masses anyway.”
Even more surprising than the age of the band’s newest fans is their passion for the band’s full catalog of songs. Two young girls seated in the front row of that Wisconsin concert – Williams guesses their age at 14 – were arm in arm, singing along to every song. “Not just waiting for ‘Wayward Son’,” he emphasizes. “They knew all of our stuff. I don’t know even know all those lyrics!”
In an era when most people – especially those younger than Leftoverture – have music libraries that consist primarily of 99-cent, single-song downloads, these kids might actually be developing a taste for album-oriented rock, without even knowing the term.
Williams likes to think that there are still people willing to embark on a journey of musical discovery, rather than settle for what’s popular. “They’re finding what pleases their own sensibilities,” he says.“Music doesn’t really have an expiration date.”
The hunger for authenticity reflected in today’s tumultuous politics, farm-to-table fashions and insidious marketing campaigns may be fueling the band’s popularity among the younger set.
Midwest values (Kansas isn’t just the name of the band – they formed in Topeka), infuse their recordings and live performances. “I’ve never been a rock star,” Williams says. “I’m just a guy who plays in a band.” It just happens to be a band that has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide.
Unlike some of the bands that ruled the airwaves in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Williams says that Kansas has not felt pressure to perform the songs we love the way we remember them. “We have never been a band that tries to replicate [our recordings] exactly. It has to always remain organic,” he says. “While the structure is there, there’s always wiggle room.”
Before landing a record deal, the members of Kansas were a copy band, playing covers of someone else’s hits in the local bars to get by. “We had our fill of that,” says Williams, who has no interest in being what he calls “a copy band of yourself.”
“The recordings are a snapshot in time. We’re going to represent [the songs], but we’re going to have fun with it ourselves, too. The goal is never to duplicate – at least it’s not for me.”
Sometimes a song will be played faster, sometimes slower. The guitar solo that fans hear in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday won’t be the same note for note as the one Williams played in Chicago the week before. “I just go for the same feel,” he says. “Maybe the drumroll coming into it entices me to do something a little bit differently.”
Recreating the original recording might be tricky due to changes in the band’s lineup anyway. Williams and drummer Phil Ehart are the only original members that remain. Ronnie Platt — who Williams says wants to honor the way things were done, while taking some liberties here or there – has taken over on keyboards and vocals. Billy Greer (bass and vocals), Zak Rizvi (guitar), Dave Manion (keyboards) and David Ragsdale (violin and guitar) round out the current configuration of the band.
The current tour, which began in August in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and wraps up Dec. 1 in Daytona Beach, coincides not only with the 40th anniversary of Leftoverture but also with the release of the first new Kansas album in 16 years.
The Prelude Implicit features 10 new tracks written by the band and co-produced by Rizvi, Ehart and Williams. The band’s signature blend of classical violin and guitar-driven rock, the odd time signatures – it’s all there. The cover image will seem familiar to Kansas fans, too. Taken from an oil painting by tattoo artist Denise de la Cerda, it shows a phoenix flying from the past into the future.
“The goal of this record was to make a quintessential Kansas album,” Williams says. On Saturday night, fans will be able to judge for themselves how well the band succeeded.
KANSAS appears on its Leftoverture 40th anniversary tour Saturday night at Broward Center for the Performing Arts’s Au-Rene Theater in Fort Lauderdale. The concert begins at 8 p.m.; tickets are $25-$125. Call 954-462-0222 or visit browardcenter.org.