While there may be peace when he is done, Judge Bill Gibron has no time to lay his weary head to rest—especially when he's up against a minor DVD presentation from a seminal '70s prog-rock act.
Carry on, my wayward band
Kansas holds a unique place in the pantheon of '70s music. Unlike Styx, who mixed metal with the maudlin to walk a fine line between pap and crap, or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer who tried to turn every piece of classical music into an extended synthesizer solo, Kansas wanted to marry the finer elements of rock and prog to create a kind of epic canvas of harmonious accord. Not content to belt out the same blues-based rifts or bar band boogie, the inventive combo took theatrical elements from other genres, melded them into a sophisticated, philosophical approach to songwriting, and delivered material that was both dynamic and different. Led by guitarist and main muse Kerry Livgren, the merry Midwesterners—vocalist/keyboardist Steve Walsh, violinist Robbie Steinhardt, axeman Richard Williams, bassist Dave Hope, and drummer Phil Ehart—built a strong cult following with endless touring and a collection of competent, experimental albums. It wasn't until 1976, however, and the phenomenal success of their fourth album, Leftoverture (and the hit song "Carry On, Wayward Son"), that the group tasted mainstream celebrity. After "Dust in the Wind" and its accompanying LP, Point of Know Return, it looked like Kansas would join the ranks of the rock-and-roll elite.
However, time and tastes undermined their efforts. Changing personnel (Livgren eventually left the band due to his growing "born again" Christianity) and the odd cultural one-two punch of hair metal (the '80s) and grunge (the '90s) meant that, even as they released records of interest and invention, Kansas came crashing down to the reality of the music business. Yet, instead of giving in to the naysayers, they stood strong. They rediscovered and reconnected with their fan base, kept up the touring, and rebuilt a reputation as a phenomenal nostalgia act with more than a few surprises left in their repertoire. Now comes the CD/DVD release of Works in Progress. An attempt to bridge the gaps in the audience's understanding of the act, this compilation contains material culled from the band's last ten years on the road. The CD portion contains 12 tracks. On the video part of the package, we get the following:
From the 1992 Live at the Whiskey video:
From the 2002 Device Voice Drum DVD
For longtime fans, the DVD portion of Works in Progress will be a brazenly bittersweet pill. At only 40 minutes, there is not a lot of substance here. Without a doubt it contains some of the group's best live performances ever. On the downside, the setup is rather strange. The packaging argues that the band is only addressing material from the last decade of its existence (1992 to 2002, respectively), yet the vast majority of the music stems directly from Kansas's most memorable and productive phase (1974-1980). Perhaps since this is a reissue of live tracks recorded between the aforementioned years, we can forgive the fudge. Still, if you're going to tap into long-gone efforts like Masque or Point of Know Return, why not include the truly classic tracks? The CD selection does offer up "The Wall," "Dust in the Wind," and "Hold On," but that "Wayward Son" song is nowhere to be found. With every classic rock station on the planet blasting that seminal track dozens of times a day, there may be no need to have a half-hearted live version of it here. Still, if you're going to draw from your entire catalog, why omit the obvious—and easily marketable - elements?
Like many classic rock acts from days gone by, Kansas no longer resembles their original lineup. Currently they are more of a cobbled-together collection of remaining members, sidemen, and players who've aided in protecting the band's financial longevity. As a group, long-time guitarist Richard Williams has been left to handle the complex chording onstage and he seems the most serious and stoic of the leftover originals. Far more interesting, frontman Steve Walsh goes through an odd transformation over the course of the two concerts. At the Whisky, he is a wild man - his hair a sweaty mop, his body bouncing uncontrollably to the music. During the 2002 performance, he is no less dynamic, but he's more in control. There is less chaos in his demeanor and his delivery. The rest of the musicians are more or less interchangeable. We see new violinist David Ragsdale in 1992, while original fiddler Robbie Steinhardt shows up a decade later. The directing in these clips is of the standard music video variety, with the bizarre decision to include shots of the act while a large remote control camera passes in front of them (in the Whiskey show, specifically). It does detract from the performance and makes something supposedly professional feel slightly amateurish.
From the point of pure technical specifications, the DVD portion of the package is decent. The Whisky a Go-Go show is offered in a hard, dark 1.33:1 full-frame transfer that really captures the live feel. The Device Voice Drum performance is presented in a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 letterboxed image that is soft, moody, and quite effective. The lack of a 16x9 option aside, the visual aspects of this release are fairly good. On the sound side, we are given the option of a superb Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (which captures the performance parameters of the band brilliantly) or an equally serviceable Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 track. Stick with the multi-channel choice. As for bonus features, we get "Dust in the Wind" and "Hold On" from the Always Never the Same album featuring the London Symphony Orchestra. Utilizing the 5.1 aural option, the performances are a tad pompous, but well worth a listen. There is no visual information to accompany them, just a menu shot of the album cover.
No one can knock Kansas from a creative standpoint. This is one band that has consistently reconfigured their sound to stay firmly entrenched in their own aural landscape. Works in Progress will definitely please the group's loyalists, but those wondering what lies beyond their '70s stadium anthems need to look elsewhere. The CD makes the case for Kansas's musicianship. The DVD is just derivative.
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