The band Kansas introduced themselves to the world in 1974 with their self-titled debut album. While their original lineup has a changed a bit throughout the years, the essence of the band has carried on much like the wayward son from their “Leftoverture” hit in 1976.
“Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind,” as well as the title track from their follow-up record, “Point of Know Return” (1977), have stood the test of time despite the periodic change in lineup. It all started more or less in the early ‘70s with vocalists Lynn Meredith and Joel Warne, keyboardists Don Montre and Dan Wright, Kerry Livgren (guitar, keyboards, synthesizers, vocals), Dave Hope (bass) and Phil Ehart (drums, percussion) and Larry Baker on sax. Their story also unfolds in a recent documentary, “Miracles out of Nowhere.”
In 2014 Kansas announced the retirement of lead singer and keyboardist Steve Walsh, who had been with the band off and on since the mid-’70s, leaving Phil Ehart and Rich Williams (lead guitar) as the longest running members. Now, Kansas consists of Ehart, Williams, Billy Greer (bass, vocals), who came on in the early ‘80s, and David Ragsdale (violin, rhythm guitar, vocals) joined in ‘91. The newest members, David Manion (keyboards, vocals) and Zak Rizvi (rhythm guitar, vocals), were added within the last couple of years, alongside an elated Ronnie Platt who took over for Walsh.
“Even though I’m a foot taller people still think I’m Steve Walsh,” Platt quips. Though he’s fast-approaching three years with Kansas, he says it seems like only a couple of months since he got the invite from Ehart and Williams to join.
“I was a little shell-shocked because it all came about so fast,” he continues. “I went from driving an 18-wheeler on the streets of Chicago to lead singer of Kansas in the course of five days.”
Platt has played in other bands in his tenure, including cover bands and American rock bands like the Shooting Star Band, with whom he was a member before getting the Kansas call. “We were doing a show at the Moondance Festival and that’s where Rich and Phil really took notice of me,” Platt tells.
It was a hectic time, to say the least. Platt had to give his notice to Shooting Star, as well as another Chicago-based band he’d originally planned to tour with that summer. It was an impossible situation of being offered a lead role in one of America’s most famous prog-rock bands but not leaving his buddies high and dry without a singer.
Then there was a matter of preparing for this new role. Platt admits there weren’t many rehearsals before riding out on the road to shows Kansas had already booked before his predecessor’s departure. He always had been a fan and knew some songs from covers he played over the years.
“It’s one thing being familiar with and knowing the music,” Platt tells. “But getting it at performance level is a whole other aspect. . . . I had to put my nose to the grindstone and get prepared for that first rehearsal.”
It was a turbulent time of taking care of obligations he’d have to leave behind and learning Kansas’ catalog cover to cover. It was really a sink or swim situation. “I don’t want to say ‘pressure,’” Platt clarifies. “That gives it a negative light, but I was feeling the excitement of what was coming up very soon.”
Now Platt has settled firmly within his role in the band as not only lead singer and keyboardist, but as a contributing songwriter on the group’s first record in 16 years. “The Prelude Implicit,” Kansas’ 15th studio album, just came out on September 23. They’ll be playing from the release at their upcoming performance at the Wilson Center’s Cape Fear Stage on October 5.
Since entering the studio last January, Platt says they worked tirelessly on “Prelude” to marry “new elements in the soup” to what traditionally makes Kansas the band it is. He attributes the development of his voice and sound to singers like Steve Walsh. Yet, he still was able to add his personal stamp on the project.
“You’ve got three new ingredients and personalities in the group,” Platt says of his dynamic with Manion and Rizvi. “One might think if 40 percent of the band is new, how is that going to affect the Kansas tradition? . . . Even though I’m not thinking consciously that I’m writing music for Kansas, it comes out naturally because I’m so influenced by them, as is Zak and David. Kansas is still there; it’s just adding fresh ingredients.”
Platt understands how the music industry can weigh heavy after decades of touring, writing songs and recording. Perhaps bringing on three new members incited the idea to put out something completely new, but if it weren’t for the heart of the band (Ehart and Williams), the beat couldn’t go on.
“I’ve really got to hand it to Rich and Phil,” Platt states. “They’ve been a part of Kansas for 43 years, and for them to still have that desire, that hunger, to want to put out new music for a band that already has this rich library of music … I mean, it says something about their character.”
“Prelude” features 10 new tracks, all diverse. “There’s a couple of songs that I would classify as really classic-sounding Kansas,” Platt clarifies. “The classic Kansas fan or long-time Kansas fan is going to love ‘The Voyage of Eight Eighteen,’ and I say that with a lot of confidence.”
A longer tune clocking in at 8 minutes and 18 seconds, “Voyage” is intense with dynamic time-signature changes carrying the listener. There are also heavy rockers on the album, while other tracks are darker and moodier.
“There are some that people would classify as ‘radio-friendly,’” Platt adds. “So there’s diversity with that common thread of Kansas all the way through it. We couldn’t be happier with what we produced.”
The first track on “Prelude,” “With This Heart,” was Platt’s first lyrical submission to Phil and Rich. “I was all prepared for them to go ‘This is really good but …’” he remembers. “So imagine my excitement when they said, ‘This is really good; we’re going to use this.’ It was just another element to that surrealness.”
In the months leading up to debuting “Prelude,” Platt and company were preparing for two different shows essentially: the show without “Prelude” songs and the one with them. Wilmington will get to see one of their first shows fully mixing Kansas of past and present. Even though Platt now officially has added to their expansive catalog, he still has a hard time controlling his fandom.
“They would never put the responsibility of putting together a setlist on me because we would end up doing a six-hour show,” he quips, “because I’d be going from album to album, saying, ‘There’s no way we’re not playing this … or that!’”
In addition to being available in all formats, they pressed two vinyl records. Three sides hold the music, while the fourth is etched with the phoenix from the album’s cover.
“It is so cool I’m going to get one myself,” Platt quips. “But to have that tangible product in your hand, not only are your ears engaged but you’re holding Kansas in your hands.”