There's a Pittsburg in Kansas, but the Pittsburgh that adored Kansas is the one here in Pennsylvania.
This was where the band from Topeka, Kan., broke through, thanks in part to local FM stations and a historic show at the Stanley Theater where headliner Queen cancelled and Kansas and Styx ended up ruling the night.
I wasn't there but I can picture it. It's six motley looking Midwestern ruffians with lots of hair, flannel overalls playing churning prog-laced boogie rock.
On Saturday night in the same building, now the more luxurious Benedum, the band returned for its one and only 40th Anniversary Fan Appreciation Concert.
Kansas plus 40 years (or in this case 38) looked much more like a PBS special, especially without wildman Robby Steinhardt in front and with the Three Rivers Orchestra dressing things up in the back.
Mr. Steinhardt has long since left the band and, sadly, an untimely heart attack last week prevented him from taking part. In his place is the equally virtuosic David Ragsdale, looking very PBS New Age-y in silvery tux tails and coiffed hair.
Behind him, on keyboards, was singer Steve Walsh, who is now the spitting image of Henry Winkler. When returning original member Dave Hope reappeared, the bassist, now Anglican priest was wearing his collar.
So, needless to say, the Kansas look and vibe was night and day from '75, but it's the music that matters, of course, and on that note Kansas was typically on top of its game.
The first set came with songs suitable for full orchestral treatment, from the heavy-hitting "Song for America" and "Belexes" to the delicate "Dust in the Wind" and pastoral "Cheyenne Anthem," sung by bassist Billy Greer. He adds a lot to the vocal mix with Mr. Walsh, who is still forceful in the midrange and, not surprisingly, just a little strained at times at the top.
The special moments in the first set were the walk-on by guitarist-songwriter Kerry Livgren, who suffered a stroke in 2009, on the inspirational "Hold On," and Livgren and Hope helping to build "The Wall." Before we go any further, it must be mentioned that Phil Ehart is still a beast on drums and Rich Williams is a gamer going it alone on electric and acoustic guitars.
Intermission is rarely fun, but this one was special. Mr. Ehart led the proceedings, which included signed memorabilia for lucky fans; a tribute to promoter Rich Engler ("He took a chance on promoting us when nobody else would," the drummer said); and birthday wishes on video from the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, Heart, Steve Morse and the very funny Styx, who remembered the Stanley gig and sang an impromptu "Carry on Wayward Son" intro. The band did its own self-mocking salute, with the drummer saying, "We would not be the musicians we are today without the guys in Kansas."
The band also previewed the forthcoming Kansas documentary, which looks like a must-see for true fans like the ones in attendance.
Mr. Ehart dedicated the concert to Mr. Steinhardt, who was represented by his beautiful daughter sporting pinkish hair, and then the current unit, minus the orchestra, got more casual -- Mr. Williams donned the overalls -- and ventured into a much louder, hard-rocking and more intricate second half, launched by "Paradox."
Kansas pounded though the boogie-rock song that broke them here, "Can I Tell You," and flexed their massive progressive-rock muscle on "Journey from Mariabronn" (also from that 1974 debut) and "Icarus II"/"Icarus - Borne on Wings of Steel."
The band also ventured away from recent setlists to hit the hardcore fanbase with its most head-spinning jam, "Magnum Opus," and spin a few other songs from its most popular period: "Miracles Out of Nowhere" and "Portrait (He Knew)."
The climactic "Carry On Wayward Son" was a fiery three-guitar version (with Livgren, Williams and Ragsdale) that had Mr. Walsh and company reaching for the high vocal and getting there triumphantly.
It was a moving celebration of a band that was loved more by fans more than tastemakers, and has carried on with dignity and chops intact long past its too-brief heyday.
Kansas' thanks to Pittsburgh didn't stop there. The members set up in the basement to sign an oversized commemorative ticket -- one that all will cherish and a few will be able to scrapbook with their stub from 1975.music
Scott Mervis: email@example.com or 412-263-2576. First Published August 18, 2013 3:45 AM