We asked notoriously difficult Weekly Alibi writer Rudolfo Carrillo what he would tell millennial readers about why the so-called classic rock band Kansas is worth their time and effort. After all, they have nothing to do with either normcore or hip-hop nation, two musical flavors the younger set seems to adore.
The band is gigging at Isleta Resort & Casino’s The Showroom on Saturday, July 20, providing an plum opportunity to both proven prog people as well as acolytes itching for a concrete reason to toss those Mac DeMarco and Drake albums out the window—as they reach for new, much coveted vinyl copies of Leftoverture or Point of Know Return to guide them to righteous rocanrol reality.
Here’s Carrillo’s statement on Kansas, followed by an interview with someone who can explain the situation much better. In this case, it’s one of the band’s current visionaries, violinist David Ragsdale.
Ahem. As prog rock continued to make advances into the realm of American popular music in the middle of the 1970s, audiences took note of an important void within the growing and already monolithic genre: It was mostly populated by English bands. Orthodox prog outfits like Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd seemed to command a genre that was grounded in classical aesthetics and sometimes ponderous yet intriguing musical presentations.
Meanwhile, so-called American prog bands like Styx and Boston seemed consumed with a hard-rock feel that left their proggy tendencies to rattle and shake in the background.
That dynamic changed when a group of musicians from Topeka, Kan. got the attention of rocanrol star makers Don Kirshner and Wally Gold. After they listened to a live performance, the band got a much-sought-after record deal, changed their moniker to Kansas and got ready to rock.
Kansas rose to prominence on the strength of innovative instrumentation and pop music awareness—original violinist and vocalist Robby Steinhardt provided a singular sound with a style of violin playing that was rootsy, even folky. And even though the influences of midwestern blues and boogie rockers like Bachman Turner Overdrive can be felt in the ensemble’s early work, it’s the bands attention to classical forms, complex key signatures and philosophically bent lyricism that put them on the same rocanrol map that yielded hits like the searching ballad, “Dust in the Wind” and full blown, epic prog tuneage like “Magnum Opus.”
Of course time has flown since that fabled autumn after America’s bicentennial. But despite several personnel changes, the band is rocking on, in the midst of a tour that celebrates their biggest hits, pays homage to their classic album Point of Know Return and demonstrates the power of a group that features original members as well as recent contributors like violinist David Ragsdale.
Anyway, I wondered if Ragsdale could put wax on any of those facts as I dialed up the longtime Kansas string player in the midst of that summer tour.
Weekly Alibi: Hey, it’s August March over at Weekly Alibi. Do you have a few moments to talk about Kansas?
David Ragsdale: Sure!
Tell our readers about Kansas on tour in 2019!
It’s the 40th anniversary of Point of Know Return. We have a fan favorites, kinda greatest hits set, and then we play the entire album in sequence.
Kansas’ music has that heartland vibe to it, but that’s combined with a really intense progressive feel too. Tell me a little bit about that; how does that sensibility work in the middle of the 21st century?
It works great and you know, I think it takes great musicians like those original guys in the band—Rob Steinhardt was the first violinist along with the folks like Kerry [Livgren] and Phil [Ehart] and Dave [Hope]—to come up with a sound that still works. There was incredible musical insight on Kerry’s part and we’ve progressed the way we were meant to.
I grew up listening to Kansas, but what about what about younger folks? Do they “get” Kansas?
They really do and the response has been surprisingly good. They’re very receptive to what we do. I’m always surprised by that, when you see that at shows. Some of them make it backstage after the show, and it’s very cool to see their reactions.
What’s the tour been like so far?
Well, we’re old men now. We kinda have to take it easier. By and large we play for a week or a weekend and then go home to Atlanta. We’ll rest for three days and then hop on a plane, get to the location, play a show, then drive to another and then another. That way we don’t burn ourselves out. We have a West Coast run later this summer. We’ll be on the road for a week and a half. When we go out there, we tend to hang for the duration.
As as an artist who joined up with Kansas in the early ’90s, what are your favorite songs from the band’s extensive catalogue?
There are too many. Half the material is serious fun to play. Easily half of it. There are some songs I like a little less, but I don’t dislike any of the work. Overall, it’s total fun for me.
Now, some of the tunes are pretty complex; do you all improvise on stage or are you spectacularly rehearsed with charts y todo?
We don’t have our charts on stage but everyone has fallen into ensemble playing. Like, when it’s solo time, like a lead break, everyone in the band can fall into a well-crafted solo that tends to be, if not repeated verbatim, is utilized heavily from show to show. There’s already enough to keep our brains full of music without adding improvisations to a clever solo. We tend to play the same solos. They start out as improvisations, then we craft them in rehearsal until they’re perfected. Then they become permanent. But that’s not all the time. There are occasions when one of the guys will throw down something brand new.
Speaking of rehearsals, I’ve heard you all are back in the studio, too ...
We have started the recording process. I think that the drum tracks have been completed.
Tell our readers about the new record.
We’re very pleased with the new songs. I don’t wanna give away too much ...
Uh-oh, spoiler alert!
It’s going to be another excellent album by Kansas. Let’s just say we’re all very psyched about it.
How about your work as a violinist? I know you also handled guitar duties in the band at times; tell our readers about that.
For a while, I did play a lot of guitar for Kansas. But we brought in Zac Rizvi, and he’s actually become the band’s main songwriter and guitarist. He’s just spectacular with the guitars. Rich [Williams guitarist] is also very talented. Every once in a while on tour, I’ll strap on a guitar because there’s no violin on certain songs. Gives me something to do, you know.
What sort of violinst do you consider yourself?
My mother wanted me to play violin. I had no interest in the violin. But she was bigger than me and ran the house, so I learned to play the violin. I never got any better than I was forced to get until I heard Kansas. I was a sophomore in high school, driving around listening to the radio. All of a sudden this song called “Can I Tell You” by this new rock band called Kansas came on. It blew me out of the water. I remember thinking that maybe this violin thing wasn’t a bad thing after all. By that time I was already a fairly decent guitar player. So I went to school and got much better on the violin. I ended up in Nashville working for Louise Mandrell for a number of years. Later, I finally coerced my way into Kansas.
I heard you sent them a letter with a tape of your playing overdubbed on one of their records.
I did. They put out the Power album in 1986 with Steve Morse of The Dixie Dregs and without a violin player. They put out that album, and I could hear the violin parts in my head. So I took the album home and played and recorded my violin parts over the tape. I sent them the tape and through a set of improbable circumstances, that ended up in the hands of founding member and manager, drummer Phil Ehart. If any of your readers don’t believe in the power of divine intervention, pay attention to the details of that story.
Why is the music of Kansas still relevant today?
It’s some of the most well-written, critically considered music of the progressive era. It wasn’t progressive rock for the sake of being progressive. For Kansas that was salt and pepper for very cleverly written pop songs. They were very clever pieces of rock that Kerry sprinkled with the flavor of his classical upbringing, with progressive chops. What a magical formula that was, because—of all the progressive bands of that era—Kansas really did outshine the others.