The American music industry has never been particularly interested in — or good at — pursuing slow, sustainable growth models. Americans in general are obsessed with speed, and that’s reflected in our rock folklore — from Elvis striking God’s perfect chord during his first Sun Studios take to Taylor Swift writing hit songs while she was still in high school, we love a fast, out-of-nowhere success story on the pop charts. There’s a whole world outside the spotlight, however, and even though it doesn’t seem to happen as often as it used to, the major labels have occasionally functioned as impatient and/or semi-unwilling incubators for artists who, for one reason or another, take a little extra time to achieve mainstream success.
Like, say, Kansas.
Needlepoint violin solos aside, pretty much everything about Kansas is slow. The first of the band’s many lineups formed in 1970, but it was 1974 before they got around to recording an album, which flopped, as did the two that followed. It wasn’t until their fourth album, 1976’s Leftoverture, that Kansas was able to claw a toehold in the marketplace — and by 1982, when original singer Steve Walsh took a hike and the band briefly morphed into a terrifying CCM/prog hybrid, they had already slid back into commercial irrelevancy. Kansas’ last major label release, In the Spirit of Things, came out in 1988, and their last overall studio effort, Somewhere to Elsewhere, was released almost ten years ago.
While contemporaries like Boston, Styx, and REO Speedwagon managed to retain various degrees of dignity during their commercial dotage, Kansas has given off a sad, flat-footed vibe for the last 25 years or so — Walsh’s departure kicked off an era of multiple breakups, grimy club tours, and long silences punctuated by bargain-priced archival live albums. During the mid ’90s, Kansas attempted a comeback with Freaks of Nature, an album recorded for Intersound, a label widely believed to be a Mafia tax shelter; three years later, they were recording live symphonic covers of their greatest hits for another shady indie outfit, River North. During an interview to promote 2002’s live CD/DVD project Device – Voice – Drum, drummer Phil Ehart admitted that the band had been dumped by not only its last label (prog champions Magna Carta), but its booking agent — a horribly galling admission for a band with evergreen AOR hits in a touring marketplace that always has room for everyone from Air Supply to whatever jiveass live package Alan Parsons happens to be peddling.
But still, Kansas perseveres; according to their website, they were on the road more or less continuously throughout 2009, they’ve recently spun off a Walsh-less satellite group called Native Window, and they’ve teamed up with a hokey-sounding outfit called StarCity Productions to celebrate their 35th anniversary as a recording group with their recently released seventh live album, There’s Know Place Like Home.
I’ve had a long and contentious relationship with Kansas’ music, starting with a series of disappointing encounters with their hit records during my early adolescence. As much as Kansas fans might beg to differ, I’m not sure there’s a classic rock band whose album covers and song titles did a poorer job of delivering what they promised. I mean, Leftoverture? When you’re 14, that title is just about as clever as clever gets, and when you toss in an intricate painting of a beleagured Medieval priest on the cover — and awesome song titles like “Father Padilla Meets the Perfect Gnat” — you’ve got the makings of a kickass rock record with a sense of humor and plenty of quirk. It was all just a ruse, though — a cunning attempt to trick ’70s youth into buying one more album full of bloated showoff musical arrangements and desperately earnest, soul-searching lyrics. Still, there was a certain fire in the belly of those early albums, and the band did a better job than most of blending its hairy prog roots with radio-ready pop songcraft: the “Carry On Wayward Son” single edit is the proggiest 3:30 that’s ever brushed the Billboard Top 10. They may not have been as much fun as Boston (those motherfuckers put a spaceship on the cover of their first album, and they made you feel like you were on one), but they didn’t seem like they’d ever tumble below Night Ranger on the list of marketable touring acts.
Needless to say, I approached There’s Know Place Like Home with no small amount of trepidation, even after reading that the band was joined by original guitarist Kerry Livgren (who left in 1984 after finding Jesus) and Livgren’s original replacement, Steve Morse (whose second-tier classic rock trifecta is rounded out with memberships in the Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple), plus an orchestra. To begin with, despite the tie-in with the band’s name, I can think of few things more depressing than celebrating any kind of anniversary in Topeka, where Know Place was recorded; for another thing, it’s hard to imagine the point of yet another Kansas live release, regardless of the marketing hook. At bottom, this is just product.
I have to say, though — as far as product goes, this really isn’t that bad. It’s true that Steve Walsh’s vocals aren’t what they used to be, but the man is 58; aside from Sammy Hagar, who drinks unicorn blood before every show, I can’t think of any singer physically capable of handling such demanding material over such a prolonged period — and anyway, he sounds a fair sight better than he did on 1992’s Live at the Whisky, and the band’s sound is every bit as tight as you’d expect from a pack of grizzled old road dogs.
The set list should also be commended. Dock a few points for the inclusion of the umpteenth live versions of “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind,” but both of those were pretty much a given, and Kansas deserves credit for packing its history into a 14-song set that draws from albums both old (set opener “Belexes” comes from 1974’s Kansas) and not as old (Somewhere to Elsewhere gets a nod with “Icarus II”). Even the band’s soggy ’80s output gets a nod — “Hold On,” “Fight Fire with Fire,” “Musicatto,” and “Ghosts/Rainmaker” are all tracks that most bands of Kansas’ vintage would probably rather just leave in mothballs. It all looks and sounds depressingly small for the 35th anniversary party of a band that has sold as many albums as Kansas, but even that’s kind of fitting; this is a band that, for all its prog pomp and spectacle, has always had a blue-collar heart.
That being said, there probably isn’t a person on the planet who needs to own There’s Know Place Like Home. I found it oddly interesting chiefly because I hadn’t listened to a Kansas album since Freaks of Nature, but anyone who’s following the band at this point has probably seen them live multiple times, and probably owns multiple live albums, and this doesn’t add anything truly essential to the catalog. It does offer you the chance to see the ’09 version of Kansas in hi-def, via a separately sold Blu-ray, but that actually sounds sort of scary; this is a band so allergic to the camera that its label hired Richard Belzer to star in one of its videos — and that was 20 years ago. And why would Kansas want to muck around with Blu-ray, anyway? If Know Place drives anything home, it’s that the biggest part of this band’s charm (limited as it might be, in my opinion) is the way it’s managed to ground prog’s silly flights of fancy to iconography and subject matter that feels time-tested and solidly real. You know, the slow stuff, like rusty threshers, wheat fields, and quill-wielding priests. In a plastic-driven industry obsessed with whatever comes next, and a genre largely preoccupied with crap like faeries and armadillo tanks, that’s pretty admirable, isn’t it?
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