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Progressive Rock Concert Reviews

Kansas

Live in Tonawanda, New York, August, 2007

Review by Sonya Kukcinovich Hill

This was absolutely an amazing event held as part of the Canal Series Concerts on the banks of the Erie Canal in Tonawanda, New York, just a stone's throw from Buffalo. One can truly say that Western New Yorkers are incredibly passionate about their outdoor music festivals that seem to occur every few days from May through August, just before the Buffalo Bills hit the football field. And to boot, the area's proggers and classic rockers seem to share their passion for Kansas and great rock music, period.

The evening began somewhat tumultuously as nearby Niagara Falls had been hammered by thunderstorms all afternoon. The northwestern skies blowing into town from Canada looked ominous indeed while stage manager David Grey had his crew deftly tie down everything that could blow away. But the canal waters barely rippled, and the evening sun re-emerged to paint the white yachts moored to the canal edge to shine like brilliant gold. And with that, despite the temporary delay, the show began.

As the long rays of the sun set behind the distant Canadian horizon to the west, Kansas took the stage to 20,000 enthusiastic fans from both sides of the border. My initial impression was simply that watching Kansas perform is a step up into rock superstardom! Wow! These guys just walk onto the stage with absolute supreme and polished confidence. They know their craft exactly and act like the professionals they are. The decibel volume was probably a good 20 points higher than the earlier acts, and, although the band was loud, they are incredibly clean when they play. I heard absolutely no musical errors in the entire show. My husband had a different view, actually from the side of the stage, and he agreed with me, saying that the band's performance was pretty close to impeccable.

The violin introduction to the opening medley of “I Can Fly / Desperate Times” was accompanied by Phil Ehart's hard rocking drums with strong syncopated accents. I made note of the pizzicato string break because it was such a delightful musical contrast dovetailed beautifully into the medley. Steve Walsh's vocals were very strong, spot on in tone quality and intonation. I absolutely fell in love with the guitar and violin tradeoffs throughout the show. Richard Williams and David Ragsdale really seem to have a fundamental communication happening. The unison lines, both melodic and harmonic, are often used as countermelodies to the vocals, not unlike the way Chicago writes its horn parts. This gives any band a type of versatility that the typical four or five piece setup would be hard pressed to duplicate.

Likewise, when Williams takes his solos, they are more than just solid. They are extremely expressive and soulful, and fit perfectly within the structure of each individual piece. He really is a very, very fine player who is just far too under-rated within the industry for his talent. Every note he plays just absolutely sings. He admits to a broad range of guitar influences, but his strong affection for Jeff Beck's body of work clearly is reflected in his playing. Ragsdale, too, shows both technical proficiency and soulful expression that one would expect from a prog band that roars like a cyclone out of the American heartland.

During “Belexes”, I made note of the beautifully strong melody lines. Sometimes melody has become expendable in modern writing, simply because I believe it is not the easiest thing to do. (If you think I'm kidding, just try it!) Many bands try to cover up this weakness by simply being polyrhythmic. Not so with Kansas. This music is an orchestrator's dream. The keyboards opening “Paradox” reveal a strong symphonically oriented, almost percussive, fanfare treatment which is immediately contrasted by a beautiful melody and running bass lines throughout. “Icarus II” was dedicated to the American forces serving abroad, and the musical buildup into the 7/4 melody line was really cool. The upper tenor vocals were impressive, and the guitar break was fiercely reminiscent of what one may hear from King's X. I also loved the Peter Erskine-style high hat kicks ala Weather Report. Willie Greer's bass counterpoint transition into “Icarus” was also very slick.

Some other really notable moments included the interesting cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” easily one of this writer's favorite Beatles' tunes. This was a rather hard edged arrangement, but again the use of pizzicato violin gave a nice musical contrast. I also liked the tasty snare rolls. “Ghosts” is a lesser known, beautiful ballad with an almost Queen-like vocal buildup. The rudimental snare syncopation in “Musicatto” is refreshing, and it actually reminded me of Alan White in the opening of Yes' “Mind Drive.” So very few drummers perform fundamentally like this anymore, so it's very enjoyable to hear that classic style on a relatively small drum kit. “Hold On” was extremely interesting, vocally speaking. The harmonies were so in tune, in fact, that I started to think that current country superstars Rascal Flatts sound somewhat Kansas derivative, but absent the rest of Kansas' musical complexities. “Song for America” and “Point of Know Return” rounded out the show, followed by a double encore of “Dust in the Wind” and “Wayward Son.” The last number had a thunderously extended ending, and 20,000 people across all age lines roared in approval. The band made a quick exit, and I was able to greet Richard Williams very briefly before he was ushered into his Escalade limo. Two days later he was kind enough to email me with this brief summary of his trip to Buffalo: “What a gig! What a crowd!” 'Nuff said for an American treasure which is a progressive delight to fans everywhere.
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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