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How Free Beer and Lies Earned Kansas Its First Record Deal

Kansas (from left): Richard Williams, Billy Greer, Zak Rizvi, Phil Ehart, Ronnie Platt, David Manion and David Ragsdale.EXPAND
Kansas (from left): Richard Williams, Billy Greer, Zak Rizvi, Phil Ehart, Ronnie Platt, David Manion and David Ragsdale.
Michie Turpin
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Kansas could have called it quits when legendary singer and keyboardist Steve Walsh departed in the not-so-distant past. Instead the veteran rockers carried on with only two original members remaining — guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart — and put out The Prelude Implicit, their first new studio album in sixteen years. Released in September of last year, the ten-song disc shows the septet in fine form, with the musical aptitude and impressive chops fans have come to expect, proving that rock isn’t always a young man’s game.

Currently, Kansas is on tour performing the entire classic 1976 album Leftoverture, which boasted the tireless hard rock hit “Carry On Wayward Son.” The band will throw in plenty of other radio and fan favorites, along with material from The Prelude Implicit. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour performance that should meet the cravings of hungry crowds with musically intricate output.

Westword recently spoke with guitarist Rich Williams in anticipation of Kansas’s April 18 stop at Denver’s Paramount Theatre.

Westword: What’s it like to be performing Leftoverture over forty years after its release?

Rich Williams: It’s pretty cool since we’ve never done it before in its entirety. I’ve played all the songs on it except for one over the years many times, so it’s not like we haven’t been playing the material. We’ve swapped songs in and out of the set at different times, but to play the entire thing [and to have a] particular part of the show set up just for that, it’s pretty cool. When that moment comes, you can sense the crowd’s anticipation of it, and it’s great. I wasn’t familiar with the rotation; we play [Leftoverture] in its original rotation. I don’t really go back and play our albums and listen to them. If we’ve added a song to a list, I’ll go listen to that song and work on it, but to sit down and just listen to a Kansas album, it’s not something I do unless we’re done with them, so it’s kind of, “Oh, yeah, this is what was next.” I’ve become familiar with how we put it together all over again.

Do you have a favorite part of that album or a favorite song on the record that you enjoy playing?

I think what everybody has the most fun with is the last song, “Magnum Opus.” It’s so diverse. There’s so many changes and moods and notes and — there’s a lot going on. It’s kind of a hold-on-to-your-hat moment where the wheels could fall off the wagon pretty easily if you’re not paying attention. It’s fun to play.

You’ve been doing this since the very beginning with Kansas, as a recording entity, and even prior to that. How do you keep yourself in shape musically and physically when you’re about to do a tour like this and there’s over two hours of music? It’s got to be hard standing there with a guitar for that long and playing like you do, because it’s not simple material.

We kind of perpetually tour, and so keeping the fingers nimble is really just — it’s a discipline of picking the thing up every day and playing it some. Usually in the morning, this would be my rehearsal time, going through the set list, just being familiar. In doing that, there are times you notice you are having a little difficulty in playing something, then all of a sudden you think, “If I play it in this position instead of that, I can play it a lot cleaner.” It’s just always kind of redefining the way you approach something and making it better.

I’m not acrobatic. I stand there and play pretty stoic. The sets for the Leftoverture show are about two and a half hours. It’s not that hard to stand there and play guitar for two and a half hours. It’s a lot harder on Phil [Ehart], the drummer.

The travel is probably the most difficult part, but it’s not that bad, and I’m used to it. It’s not for everyone. My wife is twelve years younger than me, and it wears her out a lot faster than it does me, but I was made for this. I was built to do what I do, and I’m used to it and know how to pace myself. I’ve dropped a lot of old habits a while back. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, whereas I used to smoke like a stack and try to drink every time I was dry. [If] you don’t do those things, it’s a lot easier to get up in the morning and go about your day. We’re very conscious about what we eat while we’re traveling. We try to have all-natural foods, organic foods in the dressing room, things like that — just being conscientious of all of those things so that you can keep up the pace.

This isn’t a bunch of old men on the senior’s tour taking one last lap around the track. This is a very invigorated, excited band that can’t wait for the next challenge. It’s very addictive. You can’t wait for the next day, for the next decision, the next album, the next show. I’m having the time of my life with this band.

In the Miracles Out of Nowhere documentary, there’s a scene where your platinum party for Leftoverture is discussed along with the whole Wizard of Oz motif. What was it like having the actual original little people from The Wizard of Oz parading around that party?

Pretty creepy. It was all kind of a surreal moment. The record company wanted to throw this big party. Kansas didn’t throw the party. The record company did, and so we said, “Well, let’s all show up in white tuxes.” That was our part (chuckles) and the rest was just the [record company] team putting together this extravaganza with all of that. Our manager, Budd Carr, decided to bring the original people from the cast of The Wizard of Oz for all that, and it was surreal. I’ve never gone through a thing like that before. It didn’t seem real at the moment. You just smile and walk through it and try to remain cool, but the whole time you’d rather be somewhere else [laughs].

The Prelude Implicit has plenty of energy, and the playing is fantastic. It’s your first album in sixteen years. What were your thoughts when you first heard the completed album?

What I thought was, “We did it.” When we started the project, we knew we had a band that was eager to continue, but to continue we needed to also scratch that creative itch that for a lot of reasons had not been scratched. It really requires everybody on the team contributing and wanting to do it, and suddenly we were there and it was the right time to do it. We raised the bar high and we leaped over it. So now, it’s like, “Okay, how are we going to beat this one? This is going to be hard to do.” That’s really our next goal. That can’t be our last swing at the ball.

It was very satisfying to wonder how we were going to do [The Prelude Implicit], and then to get to it and complete it, to be involved as a producer and not only to reach our goal but to exceed our goal. It’s been very well received. The record company is insane about it. Records don’t sell anymore; nobody sells records. This one is doing very well.

Kansas has had a ton of changes over the years with people leaving and new people coming in. Have you ever been at a place where you thought, “Okay, this is the last album or the last tour”?

A lot of times. I wondered, but it was never any thought like, “After this year, I’m done.” Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope left to do something else. They didn’t want to do this anymore. I’ve seen them, on occasion, question their decision. Robby Steinhardt – I’ve seen him. He’ll be out in the audience watching us, questioning his decision. Steve Walsh left for a couple albums and came back. David Ragsdale, our violinist since the ’90s, left and came back – ran back. That will never be me. I will never be on the sidelines going, “Wow, maybe I shouldn’t have done this.” I’m doing what I want to do already. I’m not going to leave this and putter around the garden or go play golf. There’s plenty of time for that and this. So, no, I’ve got the greatest job in the world. I will do this until I no longer can or we no longer can. If I win the lottery tomorrow, I’m not going to rethink my career; this is what I do, period.

Do you think you’ll ever have a one-off show where you offer free beer?

Well, it worked before, but our fan base is bigger than it was then. We had a moment of brilliance there. We knew we had to impress the record company when they were coming out to see us. It was really in the middle of nowhere in Ellinwood, Kansas. The town was about four blocks by four blocks maybe, and with that old opera house. I think it was $135 bucks to rent the [opera house] to put on a show there, and we used to do it quite a bit. So that was the place to do it, but we had to make sure we had a packed house of energized people and not let the record company know what we were doing, so when they showed up to see us — people were pretty excited when the beer is free [laughs]. They didn’t care what we were playing. There was a band up there playing loud, and they were getting drunk. It impressed the record company. They didn’t know it was free to get in and free beer and all that. Wally Gold called back to Don Kirshner’s: “There’s really something going on here. There’s people trying to get in the building. It’s packed to capacity. People are going nuts. These guys are for real.” Actually, no. Not that many people really came to see us, ever. We were a struggling bar band that played too much original material to even work. We’d have to announce songs that we wrote as, “This was on the flip side of ‘Smoke on the Water’” — announce it as somebody else’s song — just to be able to perform it in a club. So, yeah, it was deceit and lies that really got us our record deal [laughs].

Kansas, 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 18, Paramount Theatre 1621 Glenarm Place, $35-$125, 303-623-0106.

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