Live: Kansas -- Classic Rock Gets Classical Flavor In Houston

Kansas pic #1
(l to r) Phil Ehart, Billy Greer, Richard Williams,
Steve Walsh, & David Ragsdale.
Photo courtesy of Kansas.

STAFFORD CENTRE -- 1/19/2008: When a band like Metallica plays live backed by a symphony orchestra, it's understandably a matter of notable oddity. However, when classic rock group Kansas did exactly that last Saturday night at the Stafford Centre, it was a completely natural and perfect fit.
Openly heralding a celebration of the 30th anniversary of their Point of Know Return progressive concept album, released in 1977, both the longtime original stalwarts and resurfacing line-up members of Kansas joined forces to revel in the time-tested AOR popularity of the unique sound that they've established and honed throughout the last four decades. Group counterparts Steve Walsh (vocals, keyboards), Richard Williams (lead guitar), David Ragsdale (violin, guitar), Billy Greer (bass, guitar, vocals), and Phil Ehart (drums, percussion) were beautifully supplemented in the Stafford performance by the full orchestration of the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra. Conducting the local orchestra and connecting it to the Kansas sound was band-supplied director Larry Baird, who was originally instrumental in providing sweeping orchestral treatment and arrangements for many of the band's songs on the 1998 Always Never The Same album with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was a memorable night of album-oriented classic rock, set against a wafting tapestry of enveloping symphonic ambience. The somewhat small auditorium was absolutely brimming with vivid symphonic strains, set in contrast to the electronic rawness of Walsh's keyboard fingerings and vocal belts and William's periodically hard-bent leads.
There's really nothing new about comparisons made between the speedy, scale-traveling frettings of both heavier rock and softer classical stringed instruments. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Van Halen's "Eruption" have as much structural similarity as they do sonic-sampled dissimilarity. Though more often contrasted than combined, the inclusion of mixed musical elements in this two-week Kansas symphonic mini-tour was a lush marriage of sorts, beautifully uniting the best of both these worlds. Then again, I suppose, it really is a mere expansion upon the rock/classical texturing that has been somewhat indigenous to their music all along. While other bands like Electric Light Orchestra have also contributed to this melding movement, Kansas must be credited as a leading group responsible for bringing quasi-classical fusions more into mainstream rock music airplay. In essence, while most of their songs are clearly more arena rock in styling, they remain the band that comes about the closest to also resembling an electronically-based orchestra of individual section players.
The set list for the night included a creative assortment of both staple hits and more obscure song selections deemed to be compatible with the added symphonic instrumentation. As if following functional-emcee Billy Greer's lead-in description that "everything is big in Texas," the performance opened under the huge sonic canopy of "Magnus Opus" from Kansas' multi-platinum Leftoverture collection.
As anticipated, past hits like "Point of Know Return," "Hold On," and "Dust in the Wind" were rolled out at optimum points for orchestral maximization. Reaching even further back into the band's history, Kansas dusted off several cuts from its first triad of albums, unveiling "Song For America" and "Icarus--Borne on Wings of Steel"...the latter garnering a thunderous standing ovation. After dedicating a song toward mid-set to the remaining American troops in Iraq and covering The Beatle's "Eleanor Rigby" in semi-operatic fashion, Kansas closed the act with their well-loved seventies anthem, "Carry On Wayward Son."
As the house lights came back up at show's end, and the Fort Bend musicians slowly filed offstage, I couldn't help but be taken in by the sheer nostalgia of the night's performance. One didn't have to be a longtime "Wheathead" fan to truly appreciate the group's overwhelming musical professionalism or the wide array of memorable songs unveiled for the night. Even after all these years, Kansas continues to very effectively display themselves as a band endowed with amazingly rich musical talent, soul-searching lyrics, and an undying obsession with carefully-crafted, sophisticated production. END