A giant reproduction of John Steuart Curry's famous wild-eyed portrait of the abolitionist John Brown served as the backdrop of Kansas' concert Saturday at the Uptown Theater.
Some historians hail Brown's extreme actions during the 1850s as the work of a righteous freedom fighter while others characterize Brown as a domestic terrorist.
The band headlined twice at Royals Stadium during the height of its popularity. The disheartening sight of empty seats in a relatively small venue may have contributed to the astonishingly flat opening of Kansas' 80-minute outing. The 1,000 fans in attendance also seemed dazed. Aside from the parade of people who walked to the lip of the stage to take photos, the audience was initially motionless.
"Paradox," Kansas opening song, was listless. The turgid rendition of "Point of Know Return" that followed was even more troubling. "Song For America" served as a desperately needed icebreaker. Its majestic introduction is one of the most inspiring passages in the history of progressive rock. The combination of David Ragsdale's violin and Steve Walsh's keyboards filled the Uptown with a sense of grandeur. Rich Williams' guitar solo on an icy version of "The Wall" evoked the celebrated sound of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour.
Walsh, the voice of Kansas' most familiar songs, overcompensated for his slightly diminished singing with unnecessary histrionics. A version of "Dust In the Wind," the band's biggest hit, was marred by Walsh's overdramatic effort. He was much more effective on a bold rendition of "Can I Tell You." The taut selection was followed by the unrepentantly bombastic "Journey From Mariabronn." The opportunity to watch masters of progressive rock wind their way through such intricate selections is increasingly rare.
The piece showcased the astoundingly accomplished playing of drummer Phil Ehart. Along with Walsh and Williams, he's one of the three current members of Kansas who were with the band during its hit-making period. An excellent reading of the extravagant "Miracles Out of Nowhere" finally roused the majority of the audience. They remained fully engaged for a robust take on "Portrait (He Knew)" and an admirably precise replication of Kansas' signature song "Carry On Wayward Son."
The evening began with a brief outing by That 1 Guy, Mike Silverman's one-man band project. Silverman calls his handcrafted instrument "the magic pipe," a device that resembles a makeshift combination of upright bass, harp and smoking accessory. The remarkable technical dexterity displayed by Silverman made him an ideal opening act for Kansas.
The presence of King's X was more problematic. While several dozen rabid fans were on hand expressly to see the trio's 35-minute performance, the band seemed to annoy much of the audience. That's par for the course for King's X. Formed in Missouri over thirty years ago, King's X never managed to translate critical accolades into mainstream acceptance. Containing elements of Christian rock, heavy metal, pop and psychedelia, King's X didn't fit neatly into any established categories.
Not unlike King's X, Kansas is also a musical outlier. Its uniquely Midwestern version of British progressive rock might easily have relegated the band to an obscure career. Yet its uncommon talent and the steadfast commitment it demonstrated Saturday have made it an American institution.
Kansas setlist: Paradox, Point of Know Return, Song for America, The Wall, Hold On, Dust in the Wind, Can I Tell You, Journey From Mariabronn, Miracles Out of Nowhere, Portrait (He Knew), Sabre Dance, Fight Fire with Fire, Carry On Wayward Son.
| Bill Brownlee, Special to The Star