Let’s face it: Americans struggled with prog/rock. When Yes, Genesis, King Crimson (and Gentle Giant, and Camel, and UK, and…) were defining a new level of compositional ambition in rock, for better or for worse, and reaching high on the charts with it, American bands were at an artistic handicap. It wasn’t a musical issue; it was one of persona and fluency in the language and attitude of pretense. It was an insurmountable deficiency of castles, medieval myth, prep-school manners and old churches.
If you listen to the first four Kansas albums, you will hear compositions that are every bit the equal of early Genesis in terms of counterpoint and formal design, and the music routinely rocks harder as well. Where the Americans just couldn’t match up was in the lyrics. Kansas and Styx tried their level best, but the posh abstraction of Jon Anderson or Peter Gabriel’s myth-haunted multiple-personality disorder were just not in the American groundwater. I have long contended that the most organic, comfortable and uniquely American take on the progressive rock impulse – the Walt Whitman of American prog – is to be found in an unlikely place: in the music of the Grateful Dead, who, from Anthem of the Sun (1968) through Terrapin Station (1977), were known to indulge in a long-form, intricate and progressive design from time to time, and to do so without any overt debt to the Brits.
All that said, Kansas was my favorite band in the critical adolescent years. I am American, too. I don’t care if principal songwriter Kerry Livgren’s vaguely Christian pseudo-philosophical magnum opuses make sense only to him. That band played electric counterpoint on a razor’s edge, sometimes even approaching the lithe complexity of Gentle Giant – the finest of all the prog bands, if also the least accessible. And of course, Kansas had a high gear, a riff gear, that few of the British bands beyond Zep at their proggiest could match (though, oddly, Gentle Giant could; damn, do I love Gentle Giant). Kansas was good. Kansas records like the early classics Song for America and Masque typically begin with the red herring of a hard boogie/rock number before settling into the groove of pure, visionary long-form prog. Thus, if you only know the hits, you actually don’t know Kansas very well at all. People who flocked to Leftoverture because of the visceral riffage of “Carry on, My Wayward Son” were perplexed at best by what they found there.
They’ve stayed together through innumerable personnel changes, with guitarist Richard Williams as the lone constant. They’ve kept the new music coming, too, even reuniting with original principal writer Kerry Livgren for 2000’s interesting Somewhere to Elsewhere. The current lineup – which features two original members in Williams and drummer Phil Ehart, and two cats who have been on board long enough for the distinction not to matter anymore in bassist Billy Greer and violinist David Ragsdale – performs at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston on Saturday, August 18 at 8 p.m.
Ticket prices range from $44 to $104. Purchase tickets in person at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072, the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088, or online at www.bardavon.org.