I could save us all a lot of time and keep this review down to two words… “Still Great.”
But if you’re wanting to know more about Kansas on its 50th anniversary tour stop in Denver Friday night, let’s start with some facts. I generally don’t like tribute bands, because they always seem to be a subpar version of the original. So when you look at the lineup on the stage at the beginning of the show, a case could be made that you’re going to be disappointed. But that would be listening with your eyes, not your ears.
Fact: Kerry Livgren was a musical genius who wrote many of the masterpieces that would be performed that night. Also fact, Kerry suffered a stroke and is no longer able or interested in playing a nationwide tour with Kansas. So it makes no sense to hold that against the lineup on stage.
Fact: Robbie Steinhardt made Kansas unlike any other rock band out there with his frenzied violin playing that refused to make the rock band soft. Also fact, Robbie passed away two years ago, so it makes no sense to hold that against the line up on stage.
Fact: Steve Walsh was an outrageously gifted singer with a voice like no other in rock music. Also fact, Steve stepped down from the band when the combination of aging and some hard living took its toll on his voice and he no longer was able or interested in playing on a nationwide tour with Kansas. Once again, it makes no sense to hold that against the lineup on stage.
Fact: Rich Williams and Phil Ehart are the only two remaining original members. Rich was confined to playing on a chair, and when the show opened, Phil was not at the drum kit. So arguably we’re down to one original member who is physically fighting to represent the long-lasting legacy of America’s premiere prog rock band.
But if you just closed your eyes and listened to the music coming off the stage, you’d realize that the music of Kansas is big enough to hold center stage on its own. That is, if the people playing it can manage to present it in all its original epic, grandiose goodness. And to the credit of lead singer Ronnie Platt, keyboardist Tom Brislin, violin and guitar player Joe Deninzon, veteran bass player Billy Greer, and drum-tech-turned-live-performer Eric Holmquist, that’s exactly what they did. They presented the complex arrangements of Kansas’ diverse catalog with urgency, precision, fire and finesse. And they did with an incredible amount of class and reverence to the former members of the band. So I do not consider this to be a tribute band. I consider that this new cast has become Kansas.
This show was a full circle experience for me. My very first concert was seeing Kansas on the “Monolith” tour in 1979. My father took me, and though he was no fan of the band, he imagined that I would be awe-struck at the sight of Livgren, Hope, Walsh, Steinhardt, Williams and Ehart blazing through their rich catalog. And he was right.
So it was particularly rewarding to hear three tracks from the often overlooked “Monolith” record played passionately again some 44 years later. While the world mostly knows “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture,” I was a rabid fan by the age of 8 who relished the symphonic aspects of the more obscure “Song for America” and “Masque” records. This lengthy setlist did each of those records justice, along with many others spanning from the original Kansas record released in 1974, to the most recent one released in 2020. And despite the decades of distance between them, they flowed together remarkably well. It’s a tribute to just how good both the songs and the performances are on this tour.
“Welcome to Kansas.” It’s like the green flag being dropped at a raceway, and the opener “Belexes” comes roaring out on the track blowing dust and kicking up stones. Taken from the debut record featuring the iconic illustration of John Brown, who holds a gun in one hand, a Bible in the other, it’s a barnstorming opener. Brown is the perfect “mascot” for a band whose music is a fusion of fury and peace that casts a spell summoning the spirit of freedom and adventure with a crazy look in its eye. The Bible shows the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. All quite fitting for a band now celebrating 50 years. Even the long, grey beard seems about right.
I’ve seen a good number of “classic rock” bands trot out the hits that left me feeling sad about how Father Time shows no mercy. Some of these artists have stayed too long at the party. Kansas, on the other hand, brought some new blood to the party and it appears the parents where the party’s taking place won’t be coming home anytime soon.
For seven solid studio albums, Kansas kept its original line up together. But when lead singer Steve Walsh departed after “Audio Visions,” John Elefante moved in and the band came up with a pair or radio friendly hits in the era of MTV. The “new” singer, Ronnie Platt, proved every bit as capable of covering either previous singer’s territory, ranging from Walsh’s “Point of Know Return” and “Icarus—Borne on Wings of Steel” to Elefante’s “Play the Game Tonight” and “Fight Fire With Fire.” Somehow, Phil Ehart found a guy in Ronnie whose pipes don’t sound weathered or strained, and are still capable of soaring. That ain’t easy. And it makes a tremendous difference in the live experience.
Hearing “A Glimpse of Home” and “The Pinnacle” was unexpected and wonderfully welcome. These are some deep cuts the band dusted off to keep the setlist fresh and the tour something special. Mission accomplished.
Midway through the set, the band downshifted to an acoustic set that predictably included “Dust in the Wind” and unexpectedly included “Reason to Be,” another song I doubt fans have heard live in a really long time.
Up until this point in the evening, the drums were handled by Phil Ehart’s decades-long drum tech, Eric Holmquist. And I have to say, he was phenomenal. Precision pounding that clearly sought to emulate the sound and style of Phil, sweatbands and arm-crossed cymbal crashes included. But to the crowd’s surprise, Phil himself took over the kit at this point to finish out the show, which throttled back into high gear with what one band member described as the most difficult song they play—“Song for America.” This song really showcased Tom Brislin’s talent on the keys. It also demonstrated his love for performing it, as he smiled a mile wide while nailing every nuance of the piano and synth wash parts. Phil, who was recovering from an injury, played possibly with a little less force than Holmquist, but demonstrated that he’s the glue that has held the band together both on and off stage for five decades.
There were no weak points in the lengthy set, with Platt earning the spotlight in his performances of “Hold On” and “The Wall” and Joe Deninzon nearly catching fire in the smoldering rendition of “Down the Road.” It should be noted that Joe just recently joined the lineup following years of David Ragsdale handling the rock violin. With the way he played, however, you’d never know it. Joe might have brought a different look with his Mark Woods Viper strapped to his chest, but he sounded like he’s right where he belongs, even when providing background vocals and second guitar support.
That’s really what it comes down to. The guys on the stage played with great intensity and care of the music. All throughout the show, Billy Greer made references to the former members, honoring their contributions. The current lineup’s sound was precise, polished and vibrant. There was nothing stale about it, which just goes to show that 50 is just a number. And Kansas is still a band…that kicks ass. The “wheatheads” in attendance might have mostly been on the older side, but they too defied their age with standing ovations and rousing applause. It was well deserved.
Don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself.
KANSAS Photo Gallery: