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Review: KANSAS at Capital One Hall

The classic rock band brings its Point of Know Return Tour to D.C..

Review: KANSAS at Capital One Hall
Kansas at Capital One Hall. Photo: Kansas.

Kansas brought their Point of Know Return tour to the Capital One Hall in Tysons, Virginia on Sunday, December 19th, highlighted by a retrospective, full performance of the most popular album in the Kansas canon.

Kansas will mark fifty years as a band in 2022, which is a landmark for any rock band - but what's noteworthy is how they got from the release of Point of Know Return in October of 1977, to marking it's 40th anniversary (delayed by the pandemic) in 2021. Most bands are so inextricably linked to their star members - Jagger and the Stones, or Townshend, Daltry and Entwistle of The Who being two prime examples of similarly long lived groups - that the departure of a key member typically leads to the demise of the band. But Kansas has always been an ensemble group, and they've survived 49 years by replacing members (with relatively minimal disruption) whenever someone departed. In fact, a quick count shows that there have been at least 24 musicians who comprised more than a dozen iterations of the group in the years since Kerry Livgren, Robby Steinhardt, Steve Walsh, Phil Ehart, Rich Williams, and Dave Hope formed what is considered to be the "original" Kansas. As one of their t-shirts proclaims, "Kansas is a band!" - but it's also a brand.

And turnover isn't automatically a bad thing. It's not uncommon for bands that have been around a long time (and have older members) to rest on their laurels (to put it kindly) when performing live. With today's Kansas, it's clear that they aren't taking a victory lap - the members of the band are in the group because they are passionate about the music. They're not phoning it in.

On Sunday night, founding members Williams (one of the most underrated and underappreciated guitarists in rock history) and drummer Ehart (an ageless wonder behind the drum kit) were joined by Tom Brislin on keyboards, Ronnie Platt on lead vocals and keyboards, Billy Greer on bass and vocals, and David Ragsdale on violin, guitar, and vocals. The current lineup (along with Zak Rizvi, who has since left the group) were responsible for creating Kansas' most recent album, The Absence of Presence.

As someone who was on the floor at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland when Kansas was touring to support the original release of Point of Know Return (and still basking in the success of their breakthrough album, Leftoverture), it was natural to compare the original Kansas with the current lineup.

For the most part, the band acquitted themselves well. Sans Ehart they opened the evening with a five song acoustic set that started with perennial favorites People of the South Wind and Hold On (both of which worked well unplugged), followed by Memories Down the Line from their latest album, and Refugee, with a wistful version of Lonely Wind bringing Ehart on stage in time for the for the huge, thumping drumbeat section that steered it back to it's more traditional ending, and signaled that the show was moving toward the driving, classic progressive-rock that the audience came to hear.

In full compliment, the band moved briskly through an eight song set that featured some of their best known numbers (The Wall, Icarus - Borne on Wings of Steel, What's on My Mind, Song for America, and Miracles Out of Nowhere), interspersed with Cold Grey Morning and two tracks (Throwing Mountains and The Song the River Sang) from Absence of Presence.

Next they played Point of Know Return in it's entirety, in album order. The title song soared and filled the hall, and the rest of the album was delivered with an energy and intent that paid proper homage to both the album, and the musicians that created it. Dust in the Wind, which fell about two-thirds of the way through the set, brought a warm glow to those that were around when it first debuted. (Which was a significant portion of the audience.)

For the most part, each song was faithfully rendered, with the kind of energy and edge that were hallmarks of Kansas concerts when they were filling arenas all over the world. That said, there was a palpable loss of technical expertise in some parts of the performance. Albums like Leftoverture and Point of Know Return were noteworthy not only for the compositions that filled them, but also for the musical skills that they showcased. Steve Walsh was a lead vocalist of the highest caliber, and Robby Steinhardt was a violin virtuoso who also had the vocal chops to provide harmonies that matched the strength of Walsh's voice. Likewise, Kerry Livgren was an accomplished keyboard and guitar player, and both he and Walsh were talented (and prolific) songwriters. When music critic Robert Taylor reviewed Point of Know Return in 1977 he said that, "the interplay and superior musicianship make this both an essential classic rock and progressive rock recording." Listening to a Kansas album, one could hear every instrument and voice, properly layered and nuanced, and perfectly matched in volume and intensity to create a tapestry of moving themes, and soaring melodies, harmonies and counterpoints. And on tour, Kansas worked hard to preserve that crystal clear balance. Considering how much sound amplification system technology has evolved in the five decades since Kansas began touring, it was disappointing to hear a concert that was so heavy on bass and keyboards that the more delicate work of Williams and Ragsdale (on guitar and violin, respectively) were often impossible to pick out clearly. And while they are all talented musicians, those newer members had some big shoes to fill when performing songs from the group's seminal pair of albums.

Ragsdale in particular faced the biggest challenge. Steinhardt was the group's defacto front man and a physically imposing presence on stage, and in comparison Ragsdale's solos sometimes lacked the power, strength and crispness of his predecessor. Likewise, Platt - who has a strong, capable voice - was faced with the Herculean task of trying to recreate the richness of Walsh's signature high notes. Platt brings incredible energy to the stage (often to distraction, with unnecessary hand gestures and conducting members of the band who aren't even facing him), and the legacy of the band is in good hands with his vocals. But he has the unenviable task of having to reproduce the performances of the best vocalist to ever sing with Kansas. His voice blends well with Greer, and their voices are well matched. They're good singers trying to follow in the footsteps of two great ones, and only a diehard Kansas fan will notice the difference.

And give the current version of Kansas credit where it's due: they keep the music fresh and maintain a driving commitment to performing, where other bands (with similar longevity) often fall into the trap of becoming a really good cover band of themselves.

When this tour resumes in 2022, Kansas will continue taking their fans on a musical trip back to the band's heyday, while also being true to their latest efforts. And when each evening is over, those fans will leave with the final notes of the encore performance of Carry On Wayward Son ringing in their ears, and filling their heads with nostalgic memories.

Running time for the show was approximately 2 hours.

Kansas resumes touring in January 2022. For tour information, click here.

For more information about upcoming events at Capital One Hall, click here.

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