“How many albums did we sell?” asks Kansas’ signature alto, Steve Walsh, with his tongue barely in his cheek. Pete Morticelli, president of Kansas’ new label, Magna Carta Records, says that the group has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, but Walsh and founding guitarist Kerry Livgren seem impressed by this number, especially Walsh.
Whatever money the group was shorted all those years prior probably long ago went up someone’s nose or otherwise fed an ego, and for the first time in 17 years all the members of the original lineup have reunited to tour and record an album of new material for Magna Carta — sort of.
“Actually, I record all my parts down in Atlanta,” Walsh says of the city where he has lived for years. “And whenever I’m ready, I just put ’em on an MP3 and e-mail them up to Kerry.” Not exactly what you would expect to hear from a perceived-to-be dinosaur from the age of album rock who speaks with Tommy Chong’s cadence. But despite the band’s name, Kansas has adapted quite nicely to technological evolution.
“I think the whole digital thing is sort of blown out of proportion,” retorts Kerry Livgren when asked whether the technology took any of the edge off the band’s analog-spawned sound. “Yeah, when it first came out, I suppose there was a difference in the tone quality, but now the technology has come such a long way that you can use this (digital) equipment to make it sound however you want.” Put another way: “I’ve got an analog machine that’s sitting over there right now collecting dust,” he says, pointing to a contraption that serves as a drink stand in the corner of his studio/barn.
Of course, the equipment isn’t the only thing that’s changed since this lineup last recorded together. Billy Greer, the group’s bass player for the past 15 years, will give you the “more weight, less hair” cliché when asked about recording with the original band intact, though that might be because the group rarely, if ever, recorded this new project in the studio together. Still, there were some troubled times for the members of Kansas as the group’s stay at the top of the charts came to its inevitable end. Some, like Livgren and original bassist David Hope, turned away from the rock and roll lifestyle and found religion — these two collaborated on a Christian Rock project called AD. Hope landed in Florida working for a church and has written a biblical book titled Looking at Luke Through the Eyes of Hope, while Livgren ended up on a nice spread southwest of Topeka, a farm that provides that kind of tranquil seclusion for which most artists would work a lifetime. The others stayed with the group and weathered a series of personnel changes over the years, continuing to bang out the crowd-pleasers at venues ranging from state fairs to minor-league ballparks to arenas for classic-rock festivals.
As for the new record, don’t expect much of a change from the tried and true formula that afforded Kansas the stature as kings of progressive rock, especially in the lyrics. After all, Livgren’s songs have always been cryptically spiritual, like a stoner’s Creed, but now making the connection between the song’s narrator and author is not such a stretch.
“I write songs the same way I always wrote them,” says Livgren, “and I still write about the same things too. But that doesn’t mean I’m going out there with some agenda or anything, just like I never was before. The only difference now may be that the songs are the same, but they are Christian in the sense that a Christian wrote them, with his perceptions and views of the world coming into play. But that doesn’t make it a Christian rock song.”
Walsh is noticeably silent throughout this exchange about the effects of dogma on his group of merry men — a discussion that wouldn’t take place if Livgren and Hope were still solo. Walsh’s silence makes you wonder whether he is being indifferent or polite, but the answer to that question comes when I ask Walsh whether he will be back from Atlanta for the group’s gig singing the national anthem at the Royals’ home opener on Friday, April 7.
“You better be,” interjects Livgren in jest.
“Oh, I will be,” replies Walsh, “just as long as I get paid.”
As long as the banks are open, the reunited ones will carry on the next night, Saturday, April 8, at Station Casino to prime for a summer of shed and festival tours.
Respect your Elders
The Elders are like this area’s anti-Kansas. The six-piece boasts former members of The Rainmakers, Shooting Star, Fools Face, The Secrets, and the Tommy Shaw Group, but the rock they currently play is Celtic, not classic.
“If you can play this type of music, why wouldn’t you want to?” multi-instrumentalist Brent Hoad asks rhetorically. “The traditions of Celtic sounds and language are very deep, and we’ll never get to the bottom of it, but it’s something that we continue to explore and grow with. Nobody in this group cares if you look like a pop star, and we don’t. That’s not important to us; it’s just important to continue playing great music and improving.”
That bit about the pop star might seem a bit confusing coming from a Celtic group, but The Elders’ pedigree makes this type of disclaimer almost essential. After all, you wouldn’t want to show up for some old-fashioned pub rock only to discover a bunch of long-haired rockers with Marshall stacks and a Flying V. But as Hoad warns, you do want to show up to see The Elders with your game face on.
“We’ve always cautioned people that we’re rowdy and loud and may cause a few heart attacks, so make those people sit down before we start or at least get in the back of the room.” This doesn’t sit well with some of the limey kinfolk on the Celtic festival circuit that The Elders plan to hit over the summer and fall. “It’s louder than the other stuff on those tours,” agrees Hoad.
“I mean, you come in to see things that are kind of delicate and precious and stuff, and we’re sort of like the 400-pound gorilla that comes in after that. I know there are Celtic purists that might have a problem with that, but I don’t, because I’m feeling it, and so are the other guys. We’re there to have fun, have a rowdy time of it, and entertain people as well.”
If the group’s CD is any indication, the Elders’ music is something more than entertaining. There are all the elements of Celtic pub rock that make you shut up and drink while you’re there, but the lyrical content and rock rhythms that infuse some songs make the album one well worth listening to with a hangover. The record’s second track in particular clues the listener in that this is not your standard pub-rock fare.
“We like most of the rootsy American things out there, like Lucinda Williams,” admits Hoad, “and you can hear some twangy guitars and country sounds in our songs. ‘It’ll Be Alright’ also goes toward our admiration for The Pogues, but there’s all kinds of mingling of influences there: blues and country and Celtic. If you look at immigration records and so forth, you see that a lot of the Irish musicians gravitated toward Kentucky and influenced bluegrass. But, of course, we’re American guys from right here in the Midwest, so we’re familiar with that Celtic tradition.”
History lessons aside, The Elders still bring a wide range of musical backgrounds into the band, but many put their knowledge to work on instruments they couldn’t necessarily play in other bands, like Norman Dahler from Fools Face, who found himself on banjo, dobro, and guitar. Or Michael Bliss and Steve Phillips, who have both been able to come out of Bob Walkenhorst’s long Rainmakers shadow to become accomplished singers and songwriters on their own.
“I heard Mike say one time, ‘We feel like we really found a home with this group.’ We have to retrace our abilities, but we feel like this is the place where everyone is playing the kind of music and feeling the kind of vibe that we need to feel,” Hoad says. “This is not a spin-off group now. It kind of started like that, but now anything else we did would be a spin-off of this.”
“We were sponsored by Jaegermeister also — maybe it’s because we spend so much time in bars,” says Dain Estes of Shaking Tree, attempting to explain his group’s uncanny knack for attracting sponsors from the world of wine and spirits. Recently, this phenomenon manifested itself in the form of a sponsorship deal with beer-maker Corona that includes a song on a commercial in the Midwest — one similar to what Exit 159 enjoyed last year.
“We travel all over the place, and I think that’s the main thing, they see our names with clubs and stuff,” continues Estes, finally getting to the real reason for alcohol’s attraction to his group: constant motion. Shaking Tree, says Estes, has spent the better part of the past two years touring, which has been both a blessing and a curse of sorts — namely getting tagged with the dreaded hippie-band label, a distinction that usually marks a combination of fervent live support and retail failure.
For Shaking Tree, this hasn’t exactly been a bad thing over the past few years, because the majority of the group’s time was spent on the road, and the members didn’t particularly think the material they were selling matched the performance the group gave nightly. Now, though, things have changed. Shaking Tree signed a deal with Knot Known Records out of Tempe, Ariz., and recorded the band’s third album in Memphis’ Ardent Studios with producer/engineer John Hampton.
“We’re happy with the new disc because everything else we’ve done we pretty much recorded in our basement,” says Estes, who recorded Shaking Tree’s first release without a band. “So this was the big step for us, where we actually went to a studio — and they have great credentials, like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gin Blossoms and The Cramps and The Replacements, a lot of really great bands — and it was the best time we’ve ever had recording.”
Which means it might be time for the hippie band tag to go, right?
“I could care less,” claims Estes, “I think it’s funny that because we use acoustic instruments we have to be a hippie band. If you look at the times of the songs on any of our CDs, we have an average of four minutes per song, and it’s the same thing live, unless I forget to come in on time — then it’s 20 seconds longer. It’s not straight-up pop, but there is a pop format to our writing, not ‘Let’s set up and jam for a while.'”
Estes’ numbers check out, and there are plenty of acoustic bands who aren’t considered hippie bands, so that still doesn’t answer how Shaking Tree got this reputation. “Because we write so many songs, I think that makes us more of a live band,” theorizes Estes. “We won’t show up for 45 minutes to play, we’ll show up and play for four hours if we can.”
Alas, the Corona commercial will be only 30 to 60 seconds, but Shaking Tree’s traveling salvation show will revisit the area with CDs for sale in Manhattan on May 4 at Pat’s Blue Rib’n and in Lawrence on Saturday, May 6, at The Bottleneck.
He gave at the office
Free CDs are easier to get now than ever. Of course, few of these are legal, but who cares about paying the artist — free is free, right? Z’Gwon’th Studios understands your dilemma in this modern world, where one can turn into a pirate overnight, and has decided to ease your pain with a legally free CD.
“It was a three-pronged promotional attack,” admits Colin Mahoney of his motivations. “You could decide you liked the capabilities of myself as a producer/engineer, you could decide you liked the studio and that you wanted to work there, or you could decide you love the bands on the project and want to work with them.”
Sounds easy enough. As for the bands, there are plenty of workhorses to chose from with everything from Maria Anthony’s children’s songs to Kirk Rundstrom’s solo ballad, “Drug,” and breakaway material from artists such as the Band That Saved the World’s Shannon Savoie, who shows off his sensitive pop side. Either way, all 18 songs by all 18 bands were originals done specifically for this compilation, which means for fans of bands that have nothing out yet (like Tawni Freeland’s T&A) or musicians who are already famous (like LA’s Dan Bern) this is a one-time shot to own these songs — without paying for them.
“I purposely wanted to record new tracks with everyone who came in, because I feel like our sound quality now has gotten so much better that to put something on there recorded a year ago didn’t make sense,” says Mahoney. “So everything had to be recorded in the time we were allotting.” And according to Mahoney, that time (Jan. 15 to Feb. 25) proved to be a bit negotiable as well, depending on who showed up in Lawrence. “But Dan Bern did pull into town at midnight one night, and he came down and played for three hours and we picked one of his tunes.”
A lot of work for something that you’re going to give away, but the way Mahoney phrases things makes it all seem worthwhile. “I would rather give away 30,000 copies than sell 500,” he says. “It’s definitely an attempt to promote the bands, because the more they can enjoy success, the better off we’re all going to be.