Kansas Returns To The Point
Atlanta-based co-founder-guitarist Rich Williams knows the 40th anniversary of his band's album is iconic.

By Lee Valentine Smith

Named in honor of the state of its origin, Kansas officially gelled in Topeka in 1974.

The original six members of the band developed an instantly-recognizable sound that deftly encapsulated layers of European-style progressive, melded to a solid foundation of uniquely American, '70s-arena-style rock'n'roll.
As is the case with most progressive bands, the personnel dramatically evolved over the years. The definitive, classic line-up produced nine gold and three multi-platinum albums. 1976's Leftoverture was certified six times platinum, closely followed by Point of Know Return at four times platinum. Their greatest hits compilation, The Best of Kansas also qualified for a four-times platinum award.

Massive hit singles "Carry On Wayward Son" and "Dust in the Wind" helped solidify the group as one of the most-popular acts of the '70s. Fast forward two decades later and "Wayward Son" became one of the most-played tracks on classic rock radio in 1995 and '97. Both songs remain staples of international playlists and live performance favorites.

Now, with three core members based in the Atlanta area, the current edition of Kansas continues to record new music and play shows around the world. As the official 40th anniversary of the release of Point Of Know Return looms this fall, the band is set to embark on a sequel to last year's celebratory performances of Leftoverature. They're scheduled to kick off their latest tour this month at Atlanta's Cobb Energy Center - as they finalize tracks for a new album slated for release next year.

From a tour stop near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Kansas co-founder and guitarist Rich Williams recently looked back on the enduring legacy of the band, before one of the final stops on their "Radio Classics and Fan Favorites" tour.

Last year you honored the 40thanniversary of Leftoverature with a year-and-a-half-long road trip. Now, as you're ending a summertime 'greatest-hits' run, are you thinking about the Point of Know Return shows yet?

Oh, absolutely. Today I'm preparing what we'll be going over in the dressing room tonight, so we can shift gears once we get to that point. We'll start the tour in Atlanta and we'll have the Cobb Energy Center for two nights to rehearse for production. So we've gotta have it all together by then. Right now, a lot of homework is going on while we're doing this tour. It'll be at least a two-hour-and-15-minute-long show and that's a lot of material to learn in the middle of another tour.

Is it difficult to shift from the 'hits' mindset to the intricate, album-oriented presentation?

It's two completely different things. Last year we learned on the Leftoverature tour, basically how to do it with production and presenting the songs. For this, the last hour of the show is Point in its entirety, in the original running order. But we still have a lot of stuff to play before that. We don't want to repeat what we did last year so we're adding a lot of songs that we haven't been played in decades. Some we played a few times with the original six and then we put them on the shelf. Some, the current line-up has never played before.

It sounds like you're definitely up for the challenge of the project.

It's my reason to wake up in the morning, rush to basement and start practicing. That's kind of why I got in the band to start with, because I love the work. Well, I say 'work.' I've had a job and that was actually work, but this doesn't really qualify. If you do what you love, it's never really work. It's nice to have something to do that's like, 'Ok honey, that's great, but now I've gotta go downstairs and work on this stuff for a couple of hours.' It's good to have that motivation. Now our next year and a half is already booked.

So no new music until after the tour?

[Laughs] Well, that's the other thing. We'll also be recording a new album this coming January and February.

That's a lot of material to juggle.[Kansas' 2016 indie release] The Prelude Implicit was a very solid record. How does this one compare?

Well that one was long overdue. It'd been fifteen years since we'd done a new studio album. Now with this group of guys, everybody wants to be creative again. Once we opened the floodgates, the ideas just started pouring> Now we're somewhere around two-thirds done with new material. Once the Point tour gets up and running and on automatic pilot, during the week we'll have time to start working on the recording process. There's not a lot of resting that happens with us, but I think that's great, because there's always something to be excited about.

Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh were the main Kansas songwriters for years. How has the band changed with their departures and the addition of new members who also want to contribute to the catalog?

A few years after Steve left, we went down to Destin and locked ourselves in a conference room for a week. We just started hashing out ideas and we found that we have a pretty creative bunch of guys now. Once we built that confidence it started happening quickly. It's hard to tell what Kansas is, but I know it when I hear it, as we sort it out. 'Ok, that's not us, but yeah, that one is us.' Now we have a team of guys where there are no bad ideas. If you have an idea, you throw it out there. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. 'I love this part, but what if we change this turnaround here and drop the beat?' 'Oh, I never thought about that!' Now there's a more organic process that only happens when you get a bunch of guys in a room. So it's fun. Being in Kansas now is very much like it felt when we first got together. There's a passion because everyone is so happy to be in it.

Now you're looking back on a monumental album that wasn't from the actual beginning of the band. Point was more from the middle era of the band.

Yeah but you could see the beginning of the end of that period by then. Any band gets together for a reason and you're all kinda on equal ground. Then you have some success. Money changes everything, it just does. When Leftoverature went gold, we'd finally made enough to pay off all our past debt. Suddenly you're not the same guys anymore. Everyone's life had changed. Philosophies of what we were all about; it was all starting to change at that point. In hindsight, you can see it. Things were changing, but at the time you just try to pretend things are the same.

With the immense success of Leftoverature, you must've felt some pressure to repeat that success.

Yes but Kerry was on an incredible writing streak. It was just pouring out of him. There was that pressure from the label: 'Guys, this is great, but I just don't hear a hit.' With "Wayward Son," we'd struck gold, so there were expectations to deliver something else that could be on the radio.

But big hit singles isn't really the prog way of doing business.

Yes, but we'd just stumbled onto the hits. We were never 'hitmakers.'

But then came "Dust In The Wind."

And that was kind of an afterthought.

What is the real backstory on that song?

Well Kerry was trying to teach himself fingerpicking and he'd developed these chords. His wife was like, 'This is really nice, you should write a song with that.' But he was like, 'No, that's not what we do, we're a progressive rock band, we don't do acoustic songs.' But he came in one day with it and said, 'I've got another one to throw onto the heap.'

What was your initial reaction?

He played it on a reel-to-reel and just sort of mumbled the lyrics from the sheet. Even in that form, in its rawest version, we heard it. We said, 'This is our next single.'

Now forty years later, it's in the set every night.

And it's still fun to play. I'm the one guy on the planet that gets to start that song. From the first note, everybody in the building knows what it is. They know all the lyrics. Often, they have a very personal story connected to it. It means a lot to a lot of people. 'It was played at my dad's funeral' or 'It was played at our prom.' So many stories, so many memories. If I ever get so jaded that I can't appreciate all of that, then it's time for me to go.

Kansas debuts The Point Of Know Return tour on September 28 at the Cobb Energy Center. For more information, please visit cobbenergycentre.com.

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