Thursday, February 8, 2018

Kansas - why 'Leftoverture' is their masterpiece album

Kansas may just be the ugliest band in the world. Not hip or trendy in any way, but if you can put that aside and you have an appreciation for progressive rock, read on.

To put my interest in context, 1977 was a schizophrenic year. My old concert tickets show that I saw Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, but I also saw the Clash and the Sex Pistols. In the middle of all that, in the summer of ‘77, I went to America for the first time and stayed with a family in the heart of Long Island, New York. I had met the girl when she came over on a school exchange trip. We bonded over a shared appreciation of Boston’s first album.

The other music she and her friends listened to was Aerosmith (Toys In The Attic), Foghat Live, Frampton Comes Alive, Rumours (you couldn’t get away from it) and Leftoverture by Kansas, which contained their big hit at the time, 'Carry On Wayward Son'. Some of it has stayed with me. In fact all of it, except Foghat.

Leftoverture has great songs, some intricate but not too complex arrangements, with just the right mix of guitar and keyboards to keep the whole thing interesting. It was on pretty constant rotation in my bedroom in the late 70s. I was lucky enough to see them live at Hammersmith in 1978 too, playing the set you can hear on the live album from that time 'Two For The Show'.

Kansas have recently released a 40th anniversary 'Leftoverture' concert CD, with a second CD of other classic material. It's probably not the best starting point, but it does at least highlight their prog credentials, including as it does many of their long-form compositions. This incarnation of Kansas contains only two original members out of six – drummer Phil Ehart and rhythm guitarist Rich Williams. Leader and songwriter Kerry Livgren left many years ago, while more recent departures include singer and keyboard man Steve Walsh, along with singer and violinist Robbie Steinhardt.

So, the first thing anyone familiar with the originals will have to get over is the change of singer. Vocals are now handled mainly by new keyboardist Ronnie Platt, supported by bassist Billy Greer. Platt can carry a tune, but prog singing requires a certain delivery to match the ostentation of the music. Steve Walsh had that in spades. A song like Journey from Mariabronn, from the first Kansas album, is one of their most successful compositions, made especially effective by Walsh’s impassioned delivery. Platt, while he hits the notes, can’t convey the drama in the same way.
This clip of JFM is a little fuzzy but it's the real thing. Early Kansas in all their prog pomp
Listening to ‘Journey from Mariabronn’ again on this disc, I’m reminded they did some really good long-form compositions that mark them out as the best of the few US bands that could be compared with their UK prog peers. Those who bought the Best of Kansas because they liked 'Carry On…' and 'Dust In The Wind' probably missed that point, which is why Kansas get lumped in with the pomp rock bands like Boston and Styx.
Here's 'Icarus - Wings of Steel'

I had hoped for a large dollop of nostalgia listening to them play Leftoverture, which takes up disc 2. It was OK, but I felt I was listening to a tribute band. If you don’t have the originals, this is not the place to start. Get a copy of Leftoverture and the original live album, Two For The Show. And if you want to investigate further, the albums either side of Leftoverture – Song For America and Point of Know Return, as well as the first album – are worth checking out.

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