Last night Mrs. M and I went to the historic Newberry Opera House as the guests of the Mad Dog and Mad Doc, who will in turn be our guests next weekend for a Mondoville football game and mutual birthday celebration (He’s eleven days older than I am.)
The act at the Opera House was Kansas (or, I guess, KANSAS), a band that has been a big part of my musical life since my teens. Prog rock has always been the yin to my garage rock yang, and I guess that’s not really surprising, as I think they share a common DNA strand in psych. While I spend much more time listening to garage stuff these days, I still enjoy a well-crafted chopfest as much as the next guy, and Kansas has always had more chops than a steak house, along with a kind of openness and sweep that I don’t find in a lot of prog.
The band has been in the business for 42 years or so now, and so the lineup contains two members of the classic band (Richard Williams, lead and Phil Ehart, drums), two long-time members (Billy Greer, bass/vox; David Ragsdale, violin/gtr/vox), and two recent additions (David Manion, keys/vox; Ronnie Platt, vox/keys). By the way, Mr. Ragsdale has also done a fair amount of work with another of my favorite prog bands, my childhood friends in Salem Hill.
The crowd (as is typically the case at this venue) skewed older — most of the folks I saw were at least my age — but I did see a few more young people than usual, doubtless in tow of parents … or even grandparents (Of course, at $80 a head, most young folks wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket.) A lot of the women in attendance seemed awkwardly poised on the border of rockwear and “upper-middle-class Southern lady”, which again makes sense, I guess. The merch table in the lobby was long on T-shirts (including some in … ahem… adult sizes, although not quite Mondoesque), but also included stickers, drink holders, and other paraphernalia. Mrs. M and I picked up our tickets and took our positions in the balcony. A banner on the stage instructed us to take photographs of the stage and text them to an address in exchange for special merchandise offers and a chance to meet the band. Mrs. M and I got the first, but missed on the second. C’est la guerre, I reckon.
The band took the stage promptly at 8 for what we had been told would be a 90-minute show (and in fact, it ended around 9:32 or 33, including the break before the encore). The opener was “Point of Know Return”, and the crowd energized nicely, all things considered. A contingent of hard-core fans filled the first couple of rows, but lots of other folks got to their feet as well. The mix was nice, I think, although the keys may have been a little stronger than necessary. The vocals were present, and I’ll attribute any lyrical muddiness to my own hearing loss. Ehart’s kit had a very nice top-end sound and terrific cymbal sounds, but I would have liked more presence from the bass drums (but I would, wouldn’t I?) Mrs. M told me afterwards that she found it way too loud, whereas I typically feel more sonically assaulted at a Berries practice. She had some blankethead/threshold shift after the show — I didn’t. That probably says something about my own level of deafness, but I call it as I hear it. While I can.
It was basically a greatest hits show, which is exactly what one would expect from a band at this point in its career. The band gave the people what they wanted with clean hands and composure. They were tight, even in the trickiest instrumental passages, and pulled off lots of nice unison runs while navigating unusual time signatures, and several of Ehart’s fills left me smiling and shaking my head. I might have liked to see them step away from the recorded versions a little more, but these guys are pros, and put the audience in a position where every fist pump and air-drum lick (and I did my share of both) fell in the right place, which is a service to the fans in its own way.
One track I wasn’t expecting was “Belexes”, from the band’s eponymous debut. Greer, who serves as a sort of frontman for the group, mentioned that they like playing it because it has a higher degree of difficulty than a lot of the set. It was clear that they were enjoying themselves on that one, and really, I think the energy of the whole show picked up after that point. I also got to hear two of my faves, “Miracles Out of Nowhere” and “Closet Chronicles”, before the encore of “Fight Fire with Fire” and of course, “Carry On, Wayward Son.” At one point, Greer compared the intimate setting to a private party, and I think that’s about right, although it was more a party of middle-aged folks remembering parking their Ford Mavericks in a field than the people who actually parked those Mavericks forty years ago. “Time, like a never-ending stream…”
Everyone seemed happy after the show, and I was as well — I had wanted to see these guys for a long time, and they delivered, and helped a lot of people feel younger in the process. As I made my way down the stairs, a fellow behind me talked about having seen the band decades before at the Omni in Atlanta, laughing about how he never had expected his mom to let him go to a big rock show back then. I think there was a lot of that. Unfortunately, the band didn’t come out to do autographs or anything, but that’s OK — after forty-odd years, they’ve done their share of that, I guess. So Mrs. M and I headed home, where the Spawn (home for the weekend) was waiting up for us. We made curfew.