It almost goes without saying that Boston would celebrate a special anniversary in Boston, Chicago in Chicago, and Kansas somewhere, anywhere, in its home state.
But on Saturday night, fans from across the country, and as far away as Germany and Sweden, will travel to Pittsburgh to see the progressive rock band celebrate its 40th anniversary in Pittsburgh.
The location has everything to do with a concert promoter who loved music and a member of Queen taking ill just before a show almost 40 years ago.
"I was a gigantic Kansas fan when I got the album from the record guy," says Rich Engler, then a partner in the dominant promotion team DiCesare-Engler Productions. This was 1974-75 in the glory days of FM when radio playlists were still free-form.
"I went to WYDD and WDVE and said, 'You got to play this, it's fantastic!' They went with 'Can I Tell You.' "
The lead track from the band's self-titled 1974 debut album, it was a Midwest boogie-rock song that began with, of all things, a violin riff, opening up to a bold, catchy vocal harmony and a British-style prog jam in the middle.
It registered barely a blip on the national radar.
The album eked onto the charts at No. 174. Nonetheless, Kansas under the helm of noted publisher/manager Don Kirshner -- who had discovered Neil Diamond and Carole King and had worked with the Monkees and the Archies -- readily found its way on the bottom of a bill with a Mott the Hoople or REO Speedwagon.
On Feb. 25, 1975, the same month Kansas released its second album, "Song for America," long a fan fave, the band was touring with headliner Queen ("Killer Queen" era) and Styx ("Lady" era).
Shortly before showtime, Mr. Engler received word that one of Queen's members was ill and the band was a scratch.
"There was never a question of canceling," the promoter says. "We still had two viable bands. So I talked to the bands and said, 'Will you do extra long sets?' I had the DJ go out on stage and tell the fans that Queen was unable to perform but that the two other bands are going to give you an extra special evening."
"Nobody wanted refunds," recalls Kansas guitarist Rich Williams. "So, the show went on and we had a sold-out house of Kansas fans. We didn't even know there were Kansas fans. It was an awesome moment and that was the first realization that Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania was our best state and remains so to this day."
When it came time to brainstorm a way to celebrate the 40th anniversary, the band decided to make it one event with returning members rather than a tour.
"So, where do we do this event?" says Mr. Williams. "It really didn't take long to figure out. It was to go back to the old Stanley Theatre."
Kansas has a jumbled early history going back to 1970 when guitarist Kerry Livgren formed a band with high school friends drummer Phil Ehart and bassist Dave Hope. They split up for a while before eventually forming Kansas with singer Steve Walsh, violinist Robby Steinhardt and guitarist Richard Williams.
The sound was an unlikely combination of hard rock, Southern boogie and jazz with traces of classical.
People come up to Mr. Williams all the time and say, "I would have loved to been in the room to see that think tank when you guys conceived this sound."
"That gives us so much credit," he says with a hearty laugh. "All the parts, when we put them together, that's the sound that came out. We were each individually being true to our nature.
"We played in different bands together before and watched other people play that maybe had a lighter feel -- a smooth touch, really snappy, and all that, whereas we grew up pounding out the rock music of the day. We didn't know how to do things delicate, we didn't have the chops for that, so we just did things aggressively. And so underneath Kansas was always this butt-kicking rock band. But the layer on the top was approached very symphonically."
The result, he says, combined the influence of British progressive rock with "the underlying [guts] of an American rock who started playing Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The combination became something powerful. Especially live, it was like, 'Whoa, what a wall of sound.' "
America much preferred the British wall of sound, and so Kansas was a bottom-feeder for the first three albums (Pittsburgh aside), not really even drawing much critical acclaim. Then, in late '75, early '76, the band started working on what would become "Leftoverture," with Mr. Livgren stepping up as the primary songwriter.
"There was a sense that we had found ourselves," Mr. Williams says, "that all pistons were firing and all the roads kind of pointed to that moment."
All roads pointed to "Carry On Wayward Son," which not only became the band's first hit single (No. 11 in 1977) but helped usher in a new wave of slick, high-octane American bands that included Boston, Styx and Foreigner.
Through all those years in the trenches, Kansas had developed a progressive rock cult following that suddenly saw the band blow up on radio.
" 'Wayward Son' becomes a hit," Mr. Williams says, "and then your progressive rock purists start to think you sold out. Success, for some reason, to a music purist, is a bad thing. You're supposed to suffer and die, and 200 years after you're dead, you're discovered."
From Kansas' viewpoint, the market came to them rather than the other way around.
"To sell out means you're jumping on the latest wave of what is popular and imitating that in hopes of riding on the coattails of it," the guitarist says. "What song that was reminiscent at the time of 'Wayward Son' started a cappella, goes into a heavy guitar riff that suddenly goes into halftime and then completely breaks down and goes into this delicate verse into a completely different middle section? There's four songs within the song. To say that was formulated rip-off? It was just luck. We wrote a great song at the right time and it became popular. If that is selling out, I guess we did. I just really don't think that fits the mold."
"Carry On Wayward Son" was released in December 1976 and within the year Kansas went from opening for bands in theaters to headlining packed arenas (its first headlining show at the Civic Arena was in November '77).
"You have to realize," he says, "we had so far surpassed any dream we'd ever had."
At the outset, he says, "We wanted to maybe get on the radio and maybe record an album. And then be able to travel up into Minnesota and maybe down into Texas. That was the big time to us. We were aiming for regional success without any thought of two years down the road. It was, 'It would be great if we could have an ad on the radio.' Now, 'Leftoverture' is selling like crazy, we are light-years beyond any expectations. It was more shock than rock-star cockiness. I think coming from the Midwest helped keep everybody's feet on the ground. "
POINT OF NO RETURN
Kansas, now one of the biggest bands in the country, kept its momentum going with "Point of Know Return," which shot to No. 4 on the album charts in 1978 and sold more than 4 million copies. The group led the campaign with the title track, but the band's biggest-ever hit came with the middle-of-the-road acoustic ballad "Dust in the Wind," which evolved from Mr. Livgren's practice in finger picking. It was seen by some as a new level of "sellout."
"What song were we copying?" Mr. Williams says. "What style were we copying that was so popular at that moment? If it was following the folk era and it was right after Peter, Paul and Mary put out a song, maybe, but that song was popular across many styles of radio because it was a good song. It wasn't a fad, it wasn't a gimmick. Those songs are still around because Kerry wrote some great songs that stood the test of time."
Soon after the release of the less popular "Monolith," Kansas sold out the Civic Arena for two straight nights (Aug. 17-18, 1979), breaking an attendance record set by Elvis Presley.
The big VH1 "Behind the Music" plot point comes in the aftermath of 1980's "Audio-Visions." With Mr. Walsh and Mr. Livgren not seeing eye to eye on the latter's conversion to Christianity, a theme that was taking over the songwriting, the singer left to form Streets, replaced by Jon Elefante. Mr. Steinhardt, also turned off by the Christian content, left after 1982's "Vinyl Confessions," robbing the band of its two charismatic frontmen.
"Kerry had always been spiritually searching and he found what he was looking for and that changed the dynamic of what he wanted to be about and that wasn't what Kansas wanted to be about. And he felt he needed to follow his calling, and that did create some tension," Mr. Williams says.
Kansas broke up in 1984 but regrouped with Mr. Livgren out (replaced by Steve Morse) and Mr. Walsh back in for 1986's "Power." By that point, though, Kansas didn't seem much like Kansas anymore and, on top of that, the era of so-called late '70s "corporate-rock" bands had faded.
"Change in anything is painful," Mr. Williams says of Kansas' shifting personnel in that period. "People aren't like 'All right, change!' But it's always a necessary factor in life to get beyond where you are and into the next phase of things. I guess we learned over the years that change is inevitable and you make the best of it and see where it leads you."
The 1987 tour found Kansas almost back to square one playing the Syria Mosque, and over the next decade the album production slowed down, interest faded and the band entered the Rib Festival phase of its career.
A once proud band was forced to swallow some of its pride, amid the smell of barbecue smoke.
"I remember in our heyday," Mr. Williams says, "we were playing the Aladdin in Las Vegas. And people were going, 'Vegas! You're playing the casino in Vegas? For [expletive's sake]! Are you Mel Torme or something?' It had a stigma, because rock shows you played at Winterland in San Francisco.
"Then, you go on to the fairs. Well, there didn't used to be such a thing as a rib fest. Now there are. It's a gathering of thousands of people having a celebratory weekend with music. At first, it's like, 'Oh boy, the smell of funnel cake in the air and we're playing and mom and pop and the kids are wandering by.' But that's really in your head. What makes a good show and a bad show? A) You're playing some performing arts center, or B) you're playing next door, outdoors for a rib fest. The same people are there. So why is this one good and this one bad, except for in your head?
"And, since then," he adds, "everybody plays everywhere there is to play, unless you're one of the few in a thousand in the upper tier. Most people are glad to play somewhere."
SOMEWHERE TO HERE
Kansas released nine albums in the decade between 1974 and 1983. There have been only five in the past 27 years, the last one, "Somewhere to Elsewhere," being 13 years ago, stemming from a reunion with Mr. Livgren.
There's no urgency now, the guitarist says, for Kansas to be a writing/recording unit again.
"I say 'never say never.' There's absolutely no incentive to stop what we do now and at our own expense go into a studio and pour a year of heartache into an album that radio won't play and outside of a handful of fans won't be sold. If the Rolling Stones put out a new album and they're playing a soccer arena for 200,000 people and they start playing new material, that's when everyone goes and gets a beer and T-shirt. That is the reality.
"ZZ Top put out a great new album with Rick Rubin producing. Who knows about it? No one. No one cares. There's not a lot of incentive to do that."
On the plus side, the Kansas lineup has been stable for two decades with original members Mr. Williams, Mr. Ehart and Mr. Walsh joined by bassist Billy Greer, who joined in 1985, and David Ragsdale, a former Tulsa Philharmonic violinist who joined in 1991.
It was Mr. Ehart who picked up the phone and called Rich Engler, who only dabbles in the concert business these days. He didn't hesitate to set up the show at the former Stanley, now the Benedum. "I was very emotional. Honored to do it," Mr. Engler says.
The 40th Anniversary Fan Appreciation Concert was set to be the first time in 30 years that all six original members would be on stage at the same time. That won't happen, sadly, as Mr. Steinhardt suffered a heart attack Friday.
The band issued a statement saying, "The thoughts and prayers of the KANSAS band and crew are with Robby and his family. Robby has asked for his family's privacy to please be respected at this time. Due to his treatment and recovery, Robby will be unable to attend the Fan Appreciation Concert in Pittsburgh next weekend. However, all other aspects of the concert will continue as planned."
Mr. Hope and Mr. Livgren will make special appearances.
"Everybody will be on stage a time or two," Mr. Williams says. "This is not a reunion concert. This is not where the original band got back together and did rehearsals. This is an appreciation event. We're playing with a symphony and a couple guys will wander out and play on a song here or there. Maybe a song or two, the original band [without Mr. Steinhardt] will play together. Then, the second half we'll play as a band. Kerry will play on a song. And after the event we'll sit down and sign autographs till we're done."
Mr. Williams, with his distinctive eye patch (the result of a childhood fireworks accident), is one of two constants in the history of Kansas (along with Mr. Ehart). What made him stick around come hell or high water?
"The answer that would make me sound good is it's because of my dedication, blah, blah, blah. Um, it's my nature to do this. It doesn't take any effort on my part to do something I love to do. All the sacrifices and hard work, that's [bull]. I'm still around because I wake up in the morning and this is what I do. No matter what the day brings, this is what I'll be doing tomorrow."