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Review: Kansas, Shepherd’s Bush Empire (17 July)

A rare UK gig for the legendary American rock band with an unusual thread of genuine faith-searching. By Mark Craig

Kansas1Ah, Carry On Wayward Son, many of a certain age will exclaim when they see this band’s name.

And, unusually for such a complex, symphonic piece of music, it has become something of a cultural icon, featuring prominently in TV shows Glee, South Park and Supernatural, along with the film Anchorman, amongst others.
All well and good, but what are Kansas doing being reviewed here?
Well, the 40-year (count ‘em) history of the band is mostly the story of one man’s search for faith. Kerry Livgren was for many years the driving force behind the band, he composed most of the music (including Wayward Son), and running through Kansas’ whole body of work is his increasingly-desperate search through all kinds of spirituality, including the Urantia Book, Eastern mysticism, the mythology of native American Indians and gnosticism.
Carry On Wayward Son itself is described by Livgren as a ‘searching song’, with himself as the ‘wayward son’. Written before he found faith in Jesus in a hotel room in Indianapolis in July 1979, he describes feeling ‘compelled’ to include the end line “surely heaven waits for you”.


Listen to a podcast with guitarist Rich Williams

Livgren has been absent from the band for some years, as a result of illness caused by a stroke, but his presence and faith looms large over the band to this day, and that was so when they took to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire stage for a very rare London performance last week.
And what a performance it was.
Kansas2In 90 minutes, they romped through their back catalogue, with Livgren’s greatest song of faith Hold On (“outside your door, He is waiting”) being the crux of the performance. Indeed, it was oddly compelling watching singer Steve Walsh (who stormed out of the band at the height of their faith, claiming he couldn’t sing Livgren’s Christian lyrics) putting everything his now-declining voice has into it. 
With the truly-great Miracles Out Of Nowhere (“down from a gleaming heaven, I can hear the voices call”), The Wall (“the promised land is waiting like a maiden that is soon to be a bride”) and Dust in The Wind (“all your money won’t another minute buy”) and Wayward Son itself, there was a strong representation of their best faith-filled songs.
Appropriately, the towering backdrop to Kansas featured a Bible-carrying John Brown, whose radical opposition to slavery in 1850s America established him as a hero amongst northern abolitionists, and who is now regarded as having hastened the coming Civil War.
With the band at the top of their game, the (for four decades) ever-present Rich Williams ripped out the big riffs, the amazing 63 year-old Phil Ehart beat the life out of his drum kit – breaking several sticks in the process, while relative newbies David Ragsdale (looking unspeakably cool in a sleeveless morning coat) played electric violin and Billy Greer’s immense bass lines hit you hard in the chest.
Kansas3Kansas6The audience lapped it up. The old guy in front of me with the flowing white hair under his – genuine, he told me - snakeskin cowboy hat was simply entranced, as was the young Estonian guy opposite who was playing air violin throughout (and there’s a phrase you don’t often write). They loved it, as did those who could sing every word of every song – which seemed to be everyone.
And this really was the ‘last chance to see’ – Walsh has announced his retirement after this tour, while Livgren doesn’t seem likely ever to return to live touring, although his unreleased, 20-years–in-the-making cantata The Resurrection of Lazarus would make a wonderful final contribution.
From the storming opening of Mysteries and Mayhem right through the rest of the set, this was a demolition of even the highest expectations of a band of 60-somethings. On then to the last song, the one that didn’t need an introduction – just that acapella opening “carry on my wayward son…” and it brought the house down.
A class act, and one with an unusual thread of genuine faith-searching and faith-finding woven through it.

Mark Craig is Communications Director at BMS World Mission

All photos: Dan McDowall
Podcast with guitarist Rich Williams (specially recorded in June 2014) – thanks to JR Rees, Kansas management

Baptist Times, 23/07/2014
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