PREVIEW: Kansas carries on into its sixth decade playing its classics

The band will play at Byers Theatre at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center Sept. 30.

The original members of the progressive rock band Kansas in the 1970s hailed from Topeka and quickly became the most famous music act from that mid-sized Kansas town.

But around 1977, after “Carry On Wayward Son” became a massive hit, band members began venturing south to Atlanta, where a few had started dating flight attendants. Not coincidentally, Hartsfield International Airport, the name at the time, made touring far more convenient as well.

Lead guitarist Rich Williams said Kansas performed many times at Alex Cooley’s famed Electric Ballroom in Midtown in the 1970s. “Atlanta was a very hopping music scene at the time for rock,” he said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution “It was a fun city coming from Topeka. I met my second wife there.”

He would be one of the last Kansas band members to move to Atlanta by 1979 and ended up staying for 41 years until 2020, when he and his wife Debbie decided to move to a gated community in the mountains of North Carolina during the pandemic.

“We see more bears, turkey and deer than we ever see people,” he said.

But Williams, now 72, is happy to return Atlanta for a concert at the four-year-old 1,070-seat Byers Theatre at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center Friday Sept. 30. (Tickets range from $55 to $95 at www.citysprings.com.)

“We used to live down the street from there,” Williams said. “We watched that place get built.”

Kansas, which formed in 1970, now just tours more or less perpetually.

“I recommend this job to anybody,” Williams said. “It sure beats working. The venues come and go. When the lights go out, it’s all the same. And it’s all very familiar. I’m playing with some of the same guitars as I did in the 1970s.”

Williams said he has only had non-musician jobs twice in his life: a liquor store in college for four months and constructing decks in the 1980s when the band was on hiatus. “It wasn’t out of financial necessity,” he said. “I had built houses in Atlanta and wanted to learn the process and get hands-on experience. I quickly learned how hard it is to earn $100 swinging a hammer. That was work. What I do now is more like joy.”

Right now, he said, they do about 80 dates a year. That comes out to about three concerts every other weekend. “That seems to be the borderline between fun and not fun,” he said, while remaining profitable.

And while peer bands like Styx, Journey, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and REO Speedwagon eagerly do combo tours in big stadiums, Kansas prefers to do smaller shows on their own. Their schedule is a mix of theater shows, festivals and casinos.

“Once in awhile we do shows with those bands and it’s nice to see them,” Williams said, “but we’d rather be on our own stage. You can do a full set. You start and end the show. It’s easier to control.”

Credit: MARK SCHERHOLZ

Credit: MARK SCHERHOLZ

Most of the time, they end their concerts with their signature song “Carry On Wayward Son.” It remains a staple on classic rock stations along with tunes like “Dust in the Wind” and “Point of No Return.”

“Carry On Wayward Son,” Williams said, was the last song they recorded for their 1976 album “Leftoverture,” a make-or-break record for them. “Carry on Wayward Son” became their gateway to success.

“The version you hear is the first time we played it correctly,” Williams said. “It’s got so many hooks in it. A cappella chorus in the beginning. That iconic guitar riff. Halftime with that other guitar riff... It is a bit of an anthem with that sing-a-long chorus. People might mumble the verses but they all scream the chorus.”

He noted how different the song sounded compared to anything else on top 40 at the time. It peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 the same week ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” hit the top. “It broke through anyway,” he said.

More recently, the song got bonus exposure on the long-time CW drama “Supernatural,” which ran 15 seasons from 2005 to 2020 and would use the song during every season finale. (The show is now available on Netflix.) “It’s been gigantic,” he said. “We have so many younger kids come to our shows because of ‘Supernatural.’”

Williams and drummer Phil Ehart are the only original members left from the band. After lead singer Steve Walsh retired in 2014, the band selected Chicago-born cover band singer Ronnie Platt to take over.

Credit: MARK SCHERHOLZ

Credit: MARK SCHERHOLZ

Platt, 62, is a decade younger than Williams or Ehart. He recalls hearing “Carry on Wayward Song” constantly in the late 1970s as a teen. “It made an impact on me,” he said. “It was really the beginning of me becoming a toxic prog rocker.”

He had a cover band in the 1980s called Chaser that not only performed the big Kansas hits but deep cuts. “We didn’t care if the audience didn’t know them,” he said. “It was self-indulgent.”

When he heard in 2014 of Walsh’s retirement, he contacted Williams. “Totally out of character for me to do that,” Platt said. “I talked to him Thursday, met Phil on Friday. They flew me to Atlanta Monday. On Tuesday, I got an email. I was in!”

Platt feels grateful he is one of a handful of “substitute” lead singers manning major rock acts citing examples like Boston, Journey and Foreigner.

“I wonder if they were really so much in love with their perspective bands as I was with Kansas,” Platt said. “I’ve been such a hardcore fan my entire life. I not only know the vocals but so many of the keyboard parts, so many bass guitar parts. I did it for my own self-gratification long before I was in the band.”

He would occasionally play a keyboard riff of some obscure Kansas tune and a veteran band member would look at him and ask, “What was that?”

“They hadn’t heard it in such a long time,” Platt said. “In my memory here and there they would come out of nowhere!”

And Kansas is not phoning it in. Platt said before each concert, they rehearse 60 to 90 minutes. “We drill and drill and drill, not only songs we are doing that night but songs we might do in the future,” he said. “There’s no focus on the paycheck, just an obsession with getting this difficult music as good as we can get it.”


IF YOU GO

Kansas

8 p.m. Sept. 30. $55-$95. Byers Theatre at Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs. citysprings.com.