It would be tempting to say Rock Hill’s Old Town Amphitheater will turn into a time machine Friday night, taking fans back to the ’70s, when Kansas takes the stage for the first show in the city’s summer concert series.
But the progressive rock band that rose from Topeka to rule the charts with “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry on Wayward Son” doesn’t want to be a nostalgia act. For the first time in almost 40 years, the band has a new lead singer and is about to put out its first album in more than decade.
Lead guitarist Rich Williams says Kansas, now in its fifth decade as an active band, is on an “upward spiral.”
Williams spoke with The Herald about the group’s revised lineup, going on tour in his 60s and playing guitar with only one eye.
Q: Kansas recently added a new singer, Ronnie Platt, to replace longtime lead singer Steve Walsh, who retired last year. Are fans on Friday going to notice the difference?
A: Yeah, time goes fast. Steve retired in August, and it’s gone quick. Ronnie, by the time we get there, will have done over 40 shows, and he’s just killing people. ... He’s been doing this for 35 years, and he’s just not gotten a break. Now he’s come into his own and taken command of the stage. His style is very respectful of Steve. Steve is one of his favorite singers. ... He sings in a very similar tenor to Steve, and some people might not even notice the difference. Steve poured his guts out every night, and he just got tired. It’s a hard thing to do when you love what you’re doing, but we were incredibly fortunate to find Ronnie. He fits right in.
Q: This is a busy time for the band. Later this month, you’re headed into the studio to record your first full-length album since 2000’s “Somewhere to Elsewhere.”
A: After we finish this tour, the next day, we’re going into the studio, but the bulk of the recording will be done in January and February, and we’re looking to have the album come out later next year. ... We have done other projects. We did the documentary, “There’s Know Place Like Home,” and the album for that, so we’ve been in and out of the studio for some time. But still, I’m excited to get started on something new.
Q: You guys have been active since 1973. How have you kept the band going so long? And what’s it like going on tour in your 60s?
A: Well, Phil (Ehart, the drummer) and I have known each other since senior high. I played in my first garage band with Phil, and over the years we’ve just rolled with the changes and we just keep moving forward. ... We’ve tried to keep it fun. Especially since we all now have families and other things we’re focused on, we can’t be gone on a tour bus for months at a time. Now, we can shoot in on Friday and go home on Sunday ... and we still do 90 shows a year, but we’re never overworked, and we don’t spend as large an amount of time on it. It’s an easier pace. I mean, if one person got sick on the bus, everybody got sick on the bus. The bus years are a blur ... .
Q: You said you realized you needed to quit drinking while you were on tour.
A: Oh yeah, I’d be dead if I didn’t leave drinking the town dry to a younger man. It’s so much better to be able to wake up with a clear head and ready to meet the day. I don’t know how much money I spent in the hotel bar, running back after a show to order six doubles before the bar closed. We weren’t all like that. Phil is a Boy Scout, but I’m more of a black sheep. ... You don’t start intending for it to be a problem, but I had to go to rehab. Now it’s amazing to have a clear head again. I feel so much wiser, healthier. I definitely enjoy it more. I definitely understand gratitude more. I understand what being grateful is, because I’m so grateful for my life now.
Q: You’ve worn an eye patch for most of your life. Has that impacted the way you play the guitar?
A: When I lost my eye in a fireworks accident on Fourth of July weekend between seventh and eighth grades, I wasn’t even playing guitar yet. I’ve played my whole career with only one eye, so it doesn’t affect me. ... Stuff like throwing a baseball is hard, because I have no depth perception. Right after it happened, a neighbor’s kid came over and we went out to play catch, and I was throwing the ball everywhere except where the kid was. He was a younger kid, and when he saw I couldn’t do it, he started crying. ... I mean, I learned to drive with one eye, and I learned how to do it in time, but I know if I stand on top of a mountain it just looks like a postcard. I can’t tell if something’s a mile away or 50 miles. So when I drive, I just watch the road tape.
Q: But it has no effect on your guitar playing?
A: The one thing I can’t do is what’s called “tapping” (when strings are pushed into the fingerboard rather than picked). Eddie Van Halen made that style popular, and it takes a very accurate finger style with no room for error. I’ve tried to do it, but I’m not about to emulate Eddie Van Halen.
Q: Finally, how excited should fans be to see you play Friday?
A: We’re being recognized now in a way we haven’t been in decades. There’s a lot of buzz in the music industry, and I’m amazed by all of it. We’re on an upward spiral. Everything is really going well. We’re not just going through the motions. We have a long-term plan, and it’s all falling into place.
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