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Kansas thanks Pittsburgh 40 years after city boosted the band

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 7:38 p.m.
Keith Utter
Drummer Phil Ehart, one of the original members of Kansas.
Don Hunstein
Kansas, circa 1973 (from left Phil Ehart, Kerry Livgren, Steve Walsh, Richard Williams, Robby Steinhardt, Dave Hope)
The first Kansas album was release in 1974.
Rich Engler
Promoter Rich Engler (right) with Kansas after the band's two sold-out shows at the Civic Arena in 1977.
David Carstens and Courtni Meadows
Kansas, circa 2013

The young band from Topeka didn't know what to expect in a city it had never played before. Kansas came to Pittsburgh on Feb. 25, 1975, happy just to be on a bill with Styx and the British band Queen, the concert's headliner.

What transpired that night was beyond anything the band could have imagined: Freddy Mercury of Queen became sick and was unable to perform. The promoter, Rich Engler of DiCesare-Engler Productions, asked the band if it could expand its set. Then, most stunning of all, a roaring reception from fans who knew, by heart, every song from the band's self-titled debut album.

“We were just kind of forced into co-headlining,” drummer Phil Ehart says. “We hadn't been doing any gigs like that. ... It was like, OK, here we go. It went over very well.”

A perfect match was struck that night that, almost 40 years later, still holds true. On Aug. 17, Kansas will perform a 40th Anniversary Fan Appreciation Concert at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The first half of the show will feature the group with a 35-piece symphony orchestra; the second half will be a more traditional rock concert, with original members Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope, both no longer with the band, making appearances. Original violin player Robby Steinhardt also had been scheduled to be at the show, but he suffered a heart attack on Aug. 9 and was to undergo a quadruple bypass.

Pittsburgh is getting this special event because it was the first place in the country that embraced Kansas. The bond forged at that first concert crested in 1977 when Kansas sold out two consecutive nights at the Civic Arena, breaking an attendance record previously held by Elvis Presley.

Ehart estimates there were probably 500 shows between the first concert at the Stanley and the sold-out dates at the Civic Arena. To make that leap from unknown band to record-breaking headliner would have been a crazy daydream, even after the album “Kansas” was released in March 1974.

“We didn't even have a following in our hometown,” Ehart says. “We didn't have a following anywhere. We were a very odd band, musically and personally. The state of Kansas — even though we played there a lot — was not a hotbed of support. Once we got out of Kansas, Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania — thanks to Rich Engler — were the first to embrace the band.”

When he first heard the band's debut album, Engler was so smitten that he personally delivered copies of the record to WDVE-FM and WYDD-FM in Pittsburgh, and other radio stations in Erie, Johnstown, Harrisburg and Wheeling, W.Va.

“I loved the musicianship and the music itself, the intricacies of a lot of the movements,” Engler says. “Everything about it I just loved. Fortunately, the radio stations were in agreement.”

Jimmy Roach, the longtime Pittsburgh DJ who then worked at WDVE, doesn't remember exactly why the station decided to put the album “Kansas” in heavy rotation. At the time, country-rock artists such as the Charlie Daniels Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band had become very popular on WDVE. Kansas, Roach admits, wasn't the most obvious music to add to the station's playlist.

But when station personnel listened to the record, it got almost unanimous approval.

“If we liked it, we played it. ... I think the key in any of these situations is the station committing to the artist,” Roach says. “If you dip your toe in and it only gets played once a week, it's not going to get heard by enough people to make an impression. We broke a few things out of this market, and Kansas was one of them.”

WDVE not only played “Can I Tell You” and “Lonely Wind,” the two singles from “Kansas,” but other songs from the release. When the band performed at the Stanley Theater in 1975, every song from the record was met with rousing approval except “Can I Tell You” ... but only because the band didn't play it.

Engler was flabbergasted, not only by the reception the group received, but by the omission of the band's most popular song. As the crowd demanded an encore, Engler went backstage and was told the band had exhausted its repertoire.

“What about ‘Can I Tell You'?” he asked.

The band hadn't rehearsed it and was hesitant to play it live.

“We were in the mode of being an opening act, playing 30, 45 or maybe 50 minutes,” Ehart say. “That's what we were set up for. All of sudden we have to play much longer than that without rehearsing. And it's not like our music is something you can whip out at any time. It was definitely interesting.”

Engler prevailed, promising the band that “nobody would care or notice” if the song was not up to the other live material. He was right.

“The crowd went wild,” Engler says.

Like many arena stalwarts from the 1970s, Kansas' popularity began to wane in the 1980s. The band disbanded in 1984, only to reform a year later without original members Livgren, Hope and Steinhardt. Fans who had grown up with Kansas in the '70s returned, but Ehart admits the average age skewed between 40 and 50 through the 1990s.

Then came a rebirth.

“It started about 15 years ago when Kansas songs were used in movies with Adam Sandler (‘Happy Gilmore') and Will Ferrell (‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy'),” Ehart says. “We started popping up on ‘Guitar Hero' and video games. That's where this is all coming from. The younger generation found us, and we started to see it in the ages of people at the shows. Where before it was 40 to 50, it became 15 to 50.”

But why Kansas and not some of the other bands it shared stages with in the 1970s?

According to Ehart, it's more than just the band's virtuoso chops.

“Musicianship is something a lot of bands have, but that doesn't necessarily keep them around for 40 years,” Ehart says. “Whereas ‘Dust in the Wind,' ‘Point of Know Return' or ‘The Wall' or ‘Hold On' or any of our songs like that are so timeless. They just don't go away. They just get played on classic-rock radio every day in every city in the country. I think that, coupled with the band being a good band, it's helped us stay around.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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