(LEGACY RECORDINGS/KIRSHNER RECORDS/EPIC RECORDS/SONY MUSIC; 2015)
It was forty years ago last year when a group of struggling musicians with an ambitious sound and an unassuming name released their first album, sending them on a ten year journey of self-discovery and musical dominance in a field generally considered the exclusive realm of rather high-minded and esoteric English bands. To celebrate, all six original members reconvened to reminisce about everything from those humble beginnings to their breakthrough albums, LEFTOVERTURE and POINT OF KNOW RETURN, and the singles those albums spawned – “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust In the Wind.” Those reminiscences are featured in a new documentary called MIRACLES OUT OF NOWHERE, which also includes input from Garth Brooks, Brian May and ROLLING STONE scribe David Wild, among others. This special package features that documentary on DVD (or Blu-Ray), as well as a specially curated CD that covers those first five groundbreaking albums, compiled by drummer Phil Ehart and long-time producer Jeff Glixman.
Though the documentary does feature snippets of songs and rare concert footage, it’s really more about the story, which is fine with me. And, even though the guys rarely appear together on camera, there are plenty of great stories to be heard. One of the best involves Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and how opening act Kansas thwarted his attempts to pull the plug on a particularly well-received set in their home state. When the guys do appear together, it’s on a bus, recreating their drives across the state from early in their career. There’s a certain sense of camaraderie, the type that everybody feels when you’re reunited with old friends after an extended period of time; the old problems and feuds are forgotten and things just naturally pick up where they left off before those things intruded. If you want to see a bit more of the guys discussing the old days together, there is a special edition release with an extra DVD of material of just that, available only from the band’s dedicated website if pre-ordered before the release date (March 16, 2015).
The CD intersperses dialogue from the documentary with the hits and some deeper cuts from the band’s first five records. There are, of course, the group’s two biggest successes, as well as several tracks that have become staples at Classic Rock radio. You’ll recognize the ones I mean as we discuss each track individually. Now, you may be asking yourself, why do we need to discuss individual tracks that are 35 to 40 years old? Well… a couple of reasons: I really didn’t get into Kansas until their sixth release, the live album TWO FOR THE SHOW and, while I was an avid consumer of music back then, I didn’t write reviews like this one. That second reason actually leads to a third reason for an in-depth review: Cuz I wanna and cuz I can (does that make it four reasons? But, then, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!).
The disc is fairly chronological, as it begins with material from KANSAS and ends with songs from POINT OF KNOW RETURN (stopping at each subsequent album in between), although each record’s offerings are re-sequenced from the order in which they originally appeared. That means that this collection starts with the sixth track on 1974’s debut release, “The Pilgrimage,” which is actually pretty standard Midwest rock ‘n’ roll from the period. Except, of course, for Robby Steinhardt’s violin. There is absolutely nothing about this tune that would lead you to believe that these guys would become the standard-bearer for American progressive music by the release of album number two. While “Can I Tell You” was Side one, Track one of the KANSAS record, this version was recorded live for DON KIRSHNER’S ROCK CONCERT. The weird thing about it was that there was no audience; the band was as shocked to discover that when they took the stage as I was when they told the story in the documentary… I mean, who knew? Anyway, “Can I Tell You” is Kansas with their prog roots starting to show and, it’s one of those tracks that you’re likely to hear on the radio when the DJ is sick of playing the hits. “Journey From Mariabronn” is eight minutes of progressive pomp, beautifully constructed and symphonic in its scope. This is the song that really had the other guys in the band standing up and taking notice of Steve Walsh’s vocal abilities.
“Song For America,” the title track to the second record, sees chief songwriter Kerry Livgren upping his game. The ten minute piece strays a bit into Yes territory with its elegance and power, its intricate time signatures and arrangement. A straight forward rocker, “Down the Road” features a heavy Dave Hope bass line and some wicked duels between Steinhardt and guitarist Rich Williams (or, is it Livgren… or, maybe, both?). There is a section where guitar, bass and violin are playing in harmony that is absolutely magical! The prog-rockery was ratcheted up another notch with MASQUE and its centerpiece, the doublet of “Icarus” and “Borne On Wings of Steel.” The track features a pumping organ from Walsh and some heavy guitar riffs and solos, with the main solo sounding kinda like something that Steve Howe woulda played. With all of that happening, the highlight of the song is found with the amazingly tight harmony vocals. “The Pinnacle” is a majestic, symphonic number, with several musical and emotional levels… and, that’s just in the nearly three minute intro. Phil Ehart’s drums thunder and swell just below the vocals as the song continually threatens to explode in a rock ‘n’ roll fury but, sorta like something by ELP, it’s reined in right before everything blows. The tension, searching desperately for a release, is the driving force until the second, muscular guitar solo (at about the 7:45 mark), but that’s only a tease. The song is a great exercise in dynamics.
LEFTOVERTURE is where record sales finally caught up with the inherent talent of Kansas. This time out, Kerry Livgren’s songs, while not being overtly religious, are much more… spiritual, looking inward and reaching upward. Three of the first four songs on LEFTOVERTURE are presented here, beginning with “The Wall,” another slow, symphonic piece with great harmony guitars and a hymn-like keyboard coda. “Carry On Wayward Son” is THE song that Kansas will forever be remembered for. The release that never came during “The Pinnacle” finally arrives… in spades! With one of the most recognizable choruses and riffs in the history of music, not just rock, “Carry On…” still receives as much airplay as “Stairway To Heaven” or “Free Bird.” That middle section is stunningly powerful, with evocative organ and guitar solos. The song that gave this collection its name, “Miracles Out of Nowhere,” reaches Dennis DeYoung heights of pomposity, with welcome flourishes of late-period King Crimson (before they broke up the first time) mixed in during the instrumental break.
“Point of Know Return,” from the album of the same name, is probably the most well-known number from Kansas’ early oeuvre that isn’t “Carry On…” or “Dust In the Wind.” A nifty bass line from Dave Hope underscores some fairly progressive keyboard, violin and guitar parts on what is pretty much another rather Styxian sounding rocker. “Dust In the Wind” is another brilliant, subliminally spiritual song from Kerry Livgren. The beauty of the piece – aside from the lyrics – lies in its simplicity. Stripped down to the vocals of Steve Walsh and Robby Steinhardt, the guitars of Rich Williams and Livgren and Steinhardt’s violin, it’s a beautiful, sentimental tune that all of the girls wanted to slow dance to at the end of the high school dance for years to come. The final track here is “Nobody’s Home,” another elegant ballad, highlighted by a delicate piano and a rousing finale. It’s an absolutely fitting end to a great look back at a band that, at the time, stood tall among the rock elite. Unfortunately, though the guys remain friends, there are no plans for a reunion album or tour. Too bad. I, for one, would love to see that old fire and passion rekindled… if only for little while.