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After 40 years, Kansas still picking up new fans

Thursday, July 4, 2013
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Rich Williams, top right, and his band Kansas are celebrating 40 years on the road. The group is slated to perform next week at the Empire State Plaza in Albany.
Rich Williams, top right, and his band Kansas are celebrating 40 years on the road. The group is slated to perform next week at the Empire State Plaza in Albany.

Kansas guitarist Rich Williams obviously has no problems playing his signature guitar riffs from the band’s 1976 single, “Carry On Wayward Son,” each night in concert. But don’t ask him to play the song on the video games “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band.”

“When it came out, they sent me one to demo, and to be honest with you, it’s not like I’m not technically savvy; I just don’t have that much interest,” Williams said recently from the band’s home base in Atlanta.

“I grew up in the pinball machine era. When ‘Ms. Pac-Man’ came out, I didn’t like it as much as ‘Pac-Man.’ So I thought it was kind of amusing — I had so much trouble just getting the thing hooked up. I was tired of it before I started. But my kids enjoyed it.”

Even if he can’t play these video games, Williams is still a fan. “Carry On Wayward Son,” Kansas’ first Top 40 hit, appeared in “Guitar Hero II” in 2006, and since then has also been featured in “Guitar Hero Smash Hits,” “Rock Band 2” and “Rock Band Unplugged,” exposing a new generation to the song’s anthemic choruses and winding guitar riffs. Its newfound popularity has led to television and movie placements as well, most notably South Park’s 2007 “Guitar Hero”-spoofing episode, “Guitar Queer-O.”

Kansas

WHEN: 5 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Empire State Plaza, 240 State St., Albany

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: (877) 659-4377, www.empirestateplaza.org

Younger faces

Williams has certainly noticed the younger faces in the crowds at Kansas shows thanks to the video games. “In many instances, there’s entire families, where the kids have gotten to know the music through the game. It’s been very beneficial,” he said.

Besides expanding Kansas’ audience, Williams feels that the games have helped to inspire a new generation of musicians as well.

“What I did find about it though — a lot of musical purists will say, ‘It’s all crap; you’re not really learning anything; it’s not a real instrument you’re playing,’ ” he said. “While that’s true, anything that promotes music in a positive light is good. And actually I disagree — I think people do learn. It teaches hand-eye coordination; it teaches them how to listen to music; it teaches timing, different parts, different elements of a song. And I’m sure there’s been thousands of guitar players today that started out playing ‘Guitar Hero’ and said to their dad[s], ‘I want a real guitar.’ ”

This year Kansas is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a band. For its 35th anniversary, the band released a live DVD, “There’s Know Place Like Home,” which featured the current touring band — original members Williams, drummer Phil Ehart and keyboardist Steve Walsh; bassist Billy Greer; and violinist David Ragsdale. There were also guest appearances from original lead vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist and songwriter Kerry Livgren and ’80s-era guitarist Steve Morse.

In 2010 and 2011, the band embarked on its Collegiate Symphony Tours, playing with university symphonies throughout the country.

Making documentary

For the 40th anniversary, Kansas is in the process of filming a documentary on the history of the band. Also, in addition to its normal touring duties — the band has roughly 60 shows booked this year, including its performance at the Empire State Plaza on Wednesday night — the group will perform a fan appreciation concert at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Aug. 17, with Livgren, original bassist Dave Hope and original keyboardist Robby Steinhardt sitting in for a number of songs.

This will be the first time that all six original members of Kansas perform live together in at least 30 years, according to Williams. Livgren, who left the band in 1983 amid disputes over his increasingly Christian-oriented lyrics, has rejoined the band on numerous occasions, and wrote the entirety of the band’s final studio album, 2000’s “Somewhere to Elsewhere.” He suffered a stroke in 2009. Likewise, Hope and Steinhardt have been in and out of the group since their initial departures.

“Kerry’s just had a stroke, and Robby’s had many strokes, so it’s a little bit limited,” Williams said. “We’ll be doing a set with a symphony, and then a rock set with just the band, with an intermission. Hopefully we’ll have the trailer together — we’re filming a documentary, so hopefully the trailer will be together and we can show that.”

Although the band’s members have had their disputes in the past, there’s no bad blood among them these days, according to Williams. Earlier this month, the band was inducted into the Kansas Hall of Fame in Topeka.

“We were all together there for a few days; it was a lot of fun,” Williams said. “Me and Dave Hope email each other almost daily, so whatever. And Kerry’s still quite business-wise tied into the band. When Robby comes and goes — he is off the map when he goes away; he’s much harder to get in touch with, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get along.”

Pivotal venue

The band specifically chose the Benedum Center for the anniversary concert due to the theater’s role in bringing them to prominence in the ’70s. Early on in their career the theater, which was then known as the Stanley Theater, would book them when no other venue would, and gave the band its first headlining slots.

“We did tours of Pennsylvania during the first album [1974’s ‘Kansas’] when we couldn’t work anywhere,” Williams said. “And we did a show at the Stanley theater where we were opening for someone. It was at a sold-out show, and somebody in the headlining act got sick — the show was going to be canceled, but nobody wanted their money back, so the show went on with just us instead. It was our first headlining show, and it was a tremendous night. In those times, media wasn’t so instant, so who knew who we were? Then we go into Pittsburgh and we were The Beatles all of a sudden. It was quite an experience.”

No desire to record

One thing fans shouldn’t expect from Kansas anytime soon is new music. The band has kicked around some ideas including releasing one song at a time online, but its members would rather play live than take time to record.

“We kick it around once in a while, but we’re realists, and so, what’s the point?” Williams said.

“Let’s take a year off, we won’t [play live], so there will be no income. And we’ll pour our guts into a record that radio won’t play, that will appease a handful of fans. And then when we’re playing somewhere, we’ll start playing a new song, and people will go up front to buy T-shirts and beer. That’s the bitter reality of it. Dealing with that, it is frustrating because you want to be creative — but we’ve learned, let’s be creative in a way that works for us. So we do the symphony work, where we can kind of reinvent ourselves while still playing what people want to hear anyway.”

 
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