Around here, even born atheists are familiar with the biblical wastrel's triumphant visit to the halls of rock, thanks to "Carry On Wayward Son," from Kansas' breakthrough 1976 album Leftoverture. (You know the one it's got that riff that goes der ner ner ner, der ner ner ner, ner ner nanana, ba-naw, ba-naw and about 17 different bridges, choruses and verses, all of them pompously prog yet eminently hummable.) The composer of that song, guitarist Kerry Livgren, comes to town this weekend with a new old band that contains members of the original Kansas that is, the early incarnation that never really took off. It's called Proto-Kaw (get it?), and it plays the Beaumont Friday. The current Kansas has a gig the next night at the Ameristar, where Livgren may make an encore appearance.
Kansas will roll out its beloved hits to a crowd of aging cigarette-lighter bearers for androgynous vocal wailing, long instrumental breaks and '70s nostalgia, which is a powerful, powerful force, as anyone whose parents regularly yowl Jeremiah was a bullfrog! can tell you. Proto-Kaw, on the other hand, is striving to create a righteous new strain of unironic, quasi-spiritual, music-stand rock pretty much an extension of what Kansas was doing in the early '70s.
This time around, though, Livgren has found Jesus, and he means to let you know it. His evangelical Christianity is evident on the band's latest album, Before Became After, in song titles such as "Leaven," "Heavenly Man" and "Theophany." But in an age when Christian rock no longer has to suck, there's no excuse for the fact that Proto-Kaw prefers to compose music that would serve much better as the soundtrack to a megachurch's Easter passion drama or a faux-Disney biblical cartoon epic than a glorious night of dancin' and shakin' a fist.
As it turns out, the original wayward son is not so wayward anymore.
Livgren grew up in a working-class household in Topeka, which, he says, was quite the music town back in the day.
"In '64, '65, they used to call Topeka the Little Liverpool," he recalls. "There was just an absolute explosion of bands and musicians, and I think one thing that separates that era from today, in one way, is that back then, there were lots of places to play. There were clubs everywhere, there were school dances every weekend that had bands, there was just an abundance of places for musicians to play. And because of that, there was a very healthy supply of good musicians for a state that's otherwise known as an agricultural place."
Somehow it's still a mystery to Livgren one of Kansas' demo tapes found its way into the hands of CBS rock baron Don Kirschner, who made the band an offer it couldn't refuse but perhaps should have.
Livgren and his bandmates "signed contracts that were, later, when analyzed, literally a joke in the legal departments of the music industry," he says. "We're probably the most ripped-off band in history, right up there with Credence Clearwater and other bands like that. But maybe that was stupid, and maybe it wasn't, because, on the other hand, that was the only deal we were ever offered. So had we not done that, had we held out, we didn't have the chips to bargain with we signed the offer that would get us out of here. And here I am, all these years later, clamoring to get back here."
After 17 years living near Atlanta, Livgren moved back to his hometown in 1993. But the turning of the tide from wild-ass rocker to pew warmer started long before that. In 1979, Livgren shelved a spiritual quest that had begun at the age of 9, when both of his grandmothers and a family friend died in the same week. Over the following decades, Livgren says, he explored just about every branch of religion, Eastern and Western. Then, on the cusp of releasing the band's hugest hit, "Dust in the Wind" (which draws heavily from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes look it up), Livgren turned to Christianity.
"It was really ironic because here I was with everything that this world says you should pursue," he says. "I had fame, fortune, money, girls, drove a Porsche, had a big house, had a yacht and there was just this tremendous emptiness inside me. And all it really did was propel me even more desperately to look for that solution to eternity."
After singer Steve Walsh and violinist Robbie Steinhardt quit the band (they're touring with Kansas again now), Livgren left, too. He formed a project called A.D. , began putting out a steady stream of solo albums, and published a book about his life titled Seeds of Change: The Spiritual Quest of Kerry Livgren. But for all of that inspiration, Livgren to borrow from a title of his seems to have crossed the musical Point of Know Return by giving his life to the Lord. Of course, it probably doesn't help that every week, he talks to his friend Sen. Sam Brownback a rock blocker if there ever was one.
But when I tell Livgren that I'm disappointed he hangs out with Bush Leaguers, he just laughs it off. "Good, I love that," he says. "I love being out of the box."
Livgren says homosexuality is a step away from sex with animals and the fundamental teachings of Islam are responsible for terrorism but hey, at least he's not predictable.
Wayward son, come home! The fattened calf is roasting, and the beer's iced up.