Photos & Story by Scott A. Smith
On paper, the still-fresh departure of original singer-keyboardist Steve Walsh could have signaled the death bell for Kansas.
For many of the rock group’s faithful “Wheatheads,” Walsh’s distinct tenor voice, prog-rock songwriting and adventurous keyboard skills played major roles in Kansas’ sound and character. Walsh’s recent – and quite surprising – retirement from Kansas led the group to hire new singer-keyboardist Ronnie Platt (Shooting Star). Platt and new keyboardist (and former Kansas lighting crew member) David Manion performed their second show with Kansas Sept. 13 at the CenterStage Event Center inside the Choctaw Casino & Hotel in Pocola, Okla. Were there any second-night jitters? Um, no. Were there a few stray bum vocal notes or keyboard parts because of the band’s new blood? Absolutely not. The concert was a magnificent display of passion and near-peerless playing abilities.
When Platt and Manion first emerged from the venue’s shadowed curtains, their confident-yet-easy-going nature made them seem as if they have always performed alongside Kansas’ Rich Williams (guitar), Phil Ehart (drums), Billy Greer (bass, vocals) and David Ragsale (violin, vocals, guitar). The 1979 underdog rocker “People of the South Wind” blasted first from the speakers, with Ehart’s cracking snare drum and assertive cymbal hitting driving the song’s tempo with Greer’s note-perfect bass playing and Williams’ edgy six-string strokes locking together in the pocket. The one-two punch of “Point of Know Return” and “Play the Game Tonight” was just as glorious in sound.
Immediately it was noticed that Platt isn’t a Walsh copycat. His impressive voice works in the same range as his predecessor, and there’s a certain flavor in Platt’s pipes that resembles Walsh’s vocal efforts. Thankfully, Platt retains his own identity when fronting Kansas, and his chipper stage presence revealed a thankful soul. He frequently laughed with and grinned at his bandmates, and when the nearby Ragsdale bowed an uptempo passage on his electric violin, the jovial Platt pretended the bow popped him in the eye before the two laughed.
The well-paced, 100-minute set also packed can’t-miss moments like a heartfelt, downright stunning take of “What’s On My Mind.” The punchy, tugging rhythms of “Portrait (He Knew)” and the riled-up encore of “Fight Fire with Fire” and “Carry on Wayward Son” both hit rock-and-roll equivalents of a home run. When the first few notes of “Sparks of the Tempest” fired through the loud-but-clear sound system, one diehard whistled loudly before approvingly shaking his fist to the beat.
“Dust in the Wind” drew some of the loudest applause from the 18-and-older audience, with many scurrying for their cellphones to video one of classic rock’s most beloved acoustic treasure. In the song’s violin-dominated mid-section, Ragsdale and Manion executed a fantastic call-and-response section with violin and violin-sounding keyboards, respectively.
Williams also showed to be in tip-top playing shape. His fingerpicking that signaled the start of “Dust in the Wind” sounded every bit as magical as the 1977 studio original, and when it came time for his lead-guitar section in the optimistic hit, “Hold On,” Williams’ slow-burn solo was a show-stopping delight. Williams’ sustained, David Gilmour-esque guitar notes were haunting and beautiful and possessed the perfect tone, making a convincing argument that “Hold On” harbors Kansas’ best six-string solo. Williams’ solo in Pocola was every bit as goosebump-causing as original guitarist Kerry Livgren’s string-bending break on Kansas’ 2009 concert DVD, “There’s Know Place Like Home.”
There’s no doubt that Walsh will be missed by Kansas fans, as are Livgren, original bassist Dave Hope and original violinist-singer Robby Steinhardt. All of those players contributed vastly to Kansas’ still-glowing legacy, yet Kansas still were able to push forward while retaining the magic and a faithful fan base. Walsh’s exit and the entrance of Platt and Manion, as heard, seen and felt on that Pocola stage, prove that Kansas, like before, are able to carry on. Let’s all hope for a new Kansas studio LP. And many more A-level concerts like the one Kansas gave in Pocola.