Progressive rock is not dead.
Granted, no one really said otherwise with much finality, but as rock ‘n’ roll itself strays further from pop radio with each year, the prog subgenre by association becomes more distant to mainstream listeners. By default, prog is now kind of niche; passe. There are plenty of new groups making original prog records worth hearing, from the particularly fresh and batty King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard from Down Under, to modern American prog vets like Coheed & Cambria and Tool still plugging away in the studio. All of their loyal, alternative fan bases will see them along just fine.
But what’s really impressive is that some of progressive rock’s torchbearers — groundbreaking acts from the late 1960s into the 1970s and early 1980s — are still touring and making music. This year, the legendary King Crimson went on tour, even stopping in Rochester for the Xerox International Jazz Festival. Just over a week ago, Styx rocked the Lakeview Amphitheater in Syracuse with material off its brand new, super proggy concept album, “The Mission.”
And on Monday night at the Fair, Kansas flexed its own creative muscles, performing a slew of hits off its “Leftoverture” album, which celeberates its 40th anniversary this year, and some of 2016’s “The Prelude Implicit,” the first original record they had made in 16 years.
“It kind of sounds like old Kansas music,” bassist Billy Greer told a packed Chevy Court on Monday before introducing “Rhythm in the Spirit,” a track off “The Prelude Implicit.” In keeping, I thought, with Styx — because “The Mission” sounds a lot like old Styx stuff.
Here’s a bit of “Hold On” from @KansasBand at Chevy Court. Benches and lawn packed. Plenty of passionate fans swaying to this one. pic.twitter.com/7ct0KgMCNH
— Dan Poorman (@Dan_Poorman) August 29, 2017
Despite a shifting lineup over the years, with only guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart appearing on every album, Kansas still sounds great. The stars of its current iteration, no doubt, are lead vocalist Ronnie Platt and violinist David Ragsdale.
When he introduced these two players, Greer said, “and then there’s the rest of us hacks up here.”
Platt, who has only been performing with Kansas since 2013, was consistently strong throughout the band’s hour-long set on Monday. He displayed cool control over his high register, especially on tunes like opener “Point of Know Return” (“They came right out of the gate with ‘Point of Know Return!” I heard one nearby fan exclaim with glee), “Hold On,” and the band’s iconic hit “Carry on Wayward Son,” which the group performed as an encore. Platt’s expressive stage presence, too, was engaging.
It’s not a @KansasBand show without “Carry on Wayward Son.” The encore at Chevy Court! pic.twitter.com/3g7vRUOzgZ
— Dan Poorman (@Dan_Poorman) August 29, 2017
Ragsdale, a classically trained violinist who also shredded on a headless guitar throughout the evening, is this band’s secret weapon, though. Perhaps Kansas’s biggest accomplishment in the greater legacy of progressive rock is its distinctly American take on a genre that originated across the pond. The addition of violin, particularly on tracks like “Reason To Be” and “Dust in the Wind,” cements a sort of heartland prog sound. Without moving from the tenets of progressive rock, which, unofficially, are an appreciation for classical music and the resultant desire to produce dynamic arrangements, Ragsdale’s playing, in particular, felt at once quite Americana in its fiddle style and European in its classical and sometimes Celtic sensibilities. This is prog that’s not too fancy for people who live in Topeka and not too country bumpkin for Brits bumping Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Jethro Tull had the flute; Kansas has the violin. Ragsdale’s violin, at many times during his solos on Monday, even sounded akin to a synthesizer, another prog rock lead instrument. You might call a violin lame, but Kansas’s violin gets grown men in cut-off tees to cheer at Chevy Court.
While it’s easy to dismiss Kansas as a band that just stands there and noodles (there are, after all, three guitarists in this group), the group’s craft should be respected. What might sound like chaos to one sounds like musicianship of the highest order to the trained ear. Luckily, Kansas did not seem to lose anyone at Chevy Court on Monday. There was a record amount of applause, with a few in the benches even standing up, in the middle of the band’s set, after they played “Miracles Out of Nowhere,” off “Leftoverture.” With its ever-shifting meter, vocal divisi and a delicious synth bass interlude, this tune marked the group’s best (and most progressive) performance of the night.
While Billy Greer acknowledged on Monday that “there are a lot of people out there who are probably younger than the songs we’re playing,” it should be noted that many of those young folks appeared totally engaged in the band’s act. One father and son nearby sang every word of every song together, and plenty of young couples swayed around to the slower tunes.
“We are your grandfather’s rock ‘n’ roll,” Greer said, but if your grandpa is pushing you prog rock records, I say he’s pretty cool.
“Point of Know Return”
“What’s On My Mind”
“Reason To Be”
“Dust in the Wind”
“Miracles Out of Nowhere”
“Rhythm in the Spirit”
“Portrait (He Knew)”
“Carry on Wayward Son”