If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by Kansas

Happy Wednesday! By now it’s safe to assume more frequent visitors of the blog know that I have to make another important decision today. For less frequent flyers or first-time visitors, I’m about to leave for an imaginary desert island. Since survival without music would be impossible, I have to pick what to take with me on the trip, but there’re a few twists.

I can only select one song at a time. Albums don’t qualify. It also needs to be a tune by a band or an artist I’ve only rarely written about or not covered at all to date. I’m doing this exercise in an alphabetical fashion, largely relying on my own music library.

We’re up to the letter “K”. Some of the options I could have selected include B.B. King, Carole King, The Kinks, Kiss, The Knack, Lenny Kravitz and Kris Kristofferson. Based on the above criteria, my pick is Kansas and Carry On Wayward Son.

I can’t claim much familiarity with the American rock band beyond their best-known tunes, but once I decided to select Kansas, my specific song choice was easy. Carry On Wayward Son is one of my favorite ’70s rock tunes. While I’m usually in the camp of less is more when it comes to guitar riffs, I find the guitar work on this song really cool, even though it’s pretty complex.

Carry On Wayward Son was penned by guitarist Kerry Livgren, one of the band’s founding members, who also played keyboards and sang backing vocals. The song first appeared on the group’s fourth studio album Leftoverture released in October 1976. In November of that year, it also became the record’s first of two singles and the band’s first charting song.

In the U.S., Carry On Wayward Son climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be the group’s second-highest charting single there after Dust in the Wind, the 1978 ballad that reached no. 6 and brought Kansas on my radar screen. Elsewhere, Carry On Wayward Son charted in Canada (no. 5), the UK (no. 51) and Australia (no. 58). Undoubtedly, the tune’s performance helped propel Leftoverture to 5X Platinum certification status in the U.S., making it the band’s highest-selling album to date.

Except for a 7-month break-up period between August 1984 and March 1985, Kansas have been active since 1970. Their origins go back to 1969 when Kerry Livgren and Don Montre (keyboards, backing vocals), who had played together in a group called Reasons Why, formed a new band, Saratoga, together with Dan Wright (keyboards) and Lynn Meredith. In 1970, that group became Kansas. They were joined by Dave Hope (bass) and Phil Erhart (drums). Greg Allen (lead and backing vocals) and Larry Baker (saxophone) completed the inaugural line-up.

After some twists and turns, Kansas released their eponymous debut album in March 1974. It would be the first of 16 records that have appeared to date. The most recent album The Absence of Presence came out in July 2020. At the time, I featured one of the tracks in a Best of What’s New installment.

As you would imagine, Kansas have gone through multiple line-up changes. One of the more significant chapters in the band’s long history was the departure of Livgren in 1983, who had been one of their major songwriters. In the late ’70s, Livgren became a born-again Christian. His lyrics increasingly reflected a Christian perspective, which resulted in growing tension among members of the band and eventually to their above noted short break-up in August 1984.

In March 1985, Ehart and longtime Kansas members Rich Williams (guitars, backing vocals) and Steve Walsh (lead and backing vocals, keyboards, percussion) reunited, joined by Billy Greer (bass, acoustic guitar, backing and lead vocals) and Steve Morse (lead and rhythm guitars, backing vocals). Ehart, Williams and Greer remain with the group’s current line-up.

The current line-up of Kansas (from left): David Ragsdale, Phil Ehart, Ronnie Platt, Richard Williams, Tom Brislin, and Billy Greer. CREDIT: EMILY BUTLER PHOTOGRAPHY

Following are some additional insights in Carry On Wayward Son from Songfacts:

According to Livgren, the song was not written to express anything specifically religious, though it certainly expresses spiritual searching and other ideas.

Livgren became an evangelical Christian in 1980, and has said that his songwriting to that point was all about “searching.” Regarding this song, he explained: “I felt a profound urge to ‘Carry On’ and continue the search. I saw myself as the ‘Wayward Son,’ alienated from the ultimate reality, and yet striving to know it or him. The positive note at the end (‘surely heaven waits for you’) seemed strange and premature, but I felt impelled to include it in the lyrics. It proved to be prophetic.”

…Sitting at his parent’s home, in front of the family organ, Livgren composed the music for what would become “Carry On Wayward Son.” In late 2011, Livgren stated in a short interview at his home that the lyrics were partially about himself and the struggles and pressures he was facing at the time when the band’s career was on the line. The piano interlude and accompanying verse express how happy the band’s success had made him, as well as how sad and fearful he was that it might possibly be over (“I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high”). However, the chorus expresses hope that everything will work out and that he must simply keep going. (“Carry on, my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done”).

In reality, the song was almost not included on the album, and thus contributes to the album’s title of Leftoverture. The album title comes from the idea that many of the songs are leftover songs from the band’s past. For instance, the string part at the end of the second track, “The Wall”, was an old song idea that was added on to the end of the song for the record. The album, while met with mixed reviews by critics, was commercially successful, going platinum five times. “Carry On” became the bands’ first Top 40 hit (peaking at #11), and is often regarded as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. It gave Kansas the staying power it needed to keep producing records with Kirshner, and earned Kerry Livgren the reputation as one of the most respected musicians and lyricists in rock and roll.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Here’s the latest installment of my recurring new music feature. It nicely illustrates that great new music isn’t a matter of age. In fact, I’ve said it all along: Old guys rock! 🙂 Three of the following artists have been around for 50 years, while the remaining three represent a younger generation. There’s some blues rock, coz you rarely can go wrong with it; some prog and art rock; some post punk rock; and some indie rock and pop. Let’s get to it!

Walter Trout/Wanna Dance

Long-time blues rocker Walter Trout, who originally hails from Ocean City, N.J., is a survivor – literally. He started his music career on the Jersey shore scene in the late 1960s. After relocating to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, the guitarist became a sideman for John Lee Hooker, Percy Mayfield, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex, among others. From 1981 to 1984, Trout was the lead guitarist for Canned Heat. In 1984, he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and, as he noted during a recent one-hour online chat, it was Mayall who encouraged him not to copy other previous Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarists like Peter Green and Eric Clapton but to develop his own style. Trout did, left the Bluesbreakers in 1989 and launched his solo career. He has since released more than 20 albums. In 2014, things got dicey when Trout was diagnosed with liver failure – likely a result from alcohol and substance abuse he overcame in the ’80s. A liver transplant saved his life just in time. After a long recovery, Trout was able to return to music, which as he has said is the only thing he could ever do. Released on June 12, Wanna Dance is a great blues rocker from Ordinary Madness, an upcoming album of all original music, scheduled for August 28. I saw Trout in New York City in April 2019 and witnessed firsthand he is a compelling, no BS artist. Really looking forward to this record!

Ohmme/Flood Your Gut

Ohmme (formerly know as Homme) are an indie rock band from Chicago formed in 2014 by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalists Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart. In 2016, Matt Carroll joined the two young women on drums. Apple Music characterizes them as “an experimental indie pop band who use their striking vocal harmonies and lean, angular guitar patterns to create songs that are spare but full-bodied, making clever use of dynamics to generate a rich sound out of a small number of elements” – jeez, you wonder whether they pay reviewers by the number of words they stick in one sentence! Ohmme takes the opposite approach on their Facebook page: “An experiment with voice, guitar, and sound.” The band released their debut single in November 2015, followed by an eponymous EP in 2017. Flood Your Gut is the opener to Ohmme’s new (second) studio album Fantasize Your Ghost, released on June 5. Admittedly, the somewhat monotonous trance-inducing sound of this tune didn’t grab me immediately, but the more often I listen to it, the more I dig it – there’s something weirdly catchy about it!

Kansas/Jets Overhead

American rock band Kansas may have formed in the early ’70s, but evidently, they aren’t dust in the wind yet. Frankly, I wasn’t aware the band is still active. Granted, Kansas have gone through many lineup changes in their 50-year history; if I see this correctly, it appears guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Erhart are the only remaining founding members, who have been on all of the band’s 15 studio releases that came out between 1974 and 2016, as well as their upcoming album The Absence of Presence, scheduled for July 17. I’m mostly familiar with Kansas’ better known tunes like Carry On Wayward Son, Dust in the Wind, Point of No Return and Play the Game Tonight. I oftentimes feel rock that’s based on simple guitar riffs is best and consider the fantastic Carry On Wayward Son as an exception that proves the rule. Jets Overhead, which was written by guitarist Zak Rizvi and appeared on June 5, is the third track released ahead of the album. You rarely hear a violin solo in a rock song these days. Sounds pretty good to me!

Phoebe Bridgers/Graceland Too

Phoebe Bridgers is a Los Angeles-based 25-year-old singer-songwriter. Apple Musics characterization of her music as “folk-based” with “a dreamy and hook-filled indie pop heart” sounds right to me. Apart from her solo work, she’s also a member of indie rock band Boygenius and performs with Conor Oberst in indie rock duo Better Oblivion Community Center. In March 2014, Bridgers released her debut, an EP cheerfully titled Killer. Following what appears to be a live album, 2016 Tour CD, her first full-length studio release Stranger in the Alps appeared in September 2017. Graceland Too is a country-flavored tune from Bridgers’ sophomore album Punisher, which came out on June 18. This song has a beautiful warm sound that nicely blends with Bridgers’ voice.

Elvis Costello/No Flag

Released June 5, No Flag is the first new song by Elvis Costello since Purse, an EP from April 2019, featuring four previously unreleased songs recorded with his band the Imposters. According to a news announcement, Costello recorded No Flag alone in Finland in February this year. “I wanted to go somewhere nobody knew me,” he explained. “So, this is ‘The Helsinki Sound.’” The announcement also asks readers to “look out for the next installment of this story on July 10th” – perhaps a hint to a forthcoming new album? With an unsettling melody and dark lyrics like No time for this kind of love/No flag waving high above/No sign for the dark place that I live/No God for the damn that I don’t give, the timing of the release during the COVID-19 pandemic certainly doesn’t look like a coincidence.

JJ Wilde/Cold Shoulder

JJ Wilde is a singer-songwriter hailing from Kitchener in Ontario, Canada, which is located about 60 miles of Toronto. Wilde started writing and playing guitar during her teenage years. Despite a massive amount of songs and gigging, she apparently struggled in the early part of her career, and ended up working three jobs. When Wilde about to give up music professionally in 2018, she finally got a break, signing with Black Box Recordings. Last year, her debut EP Wilde Eyes, Steady Hands appeared. Ruthless, Wilde’s first full album, was released on June 12. “This album has felt like a long time coming, and no time at all,” wrote Wilde on her Facebook page. “Most of the inspiration for the album came from an apartment I lived in two years before I started this journey. I was in a dark place, and was very unsure of where my life was going. Almost 4 years later, with countless shows, tours, travelling, writing sessions, I now feel like this album is the complete first draft of an inside look into my world.” Here’s Cold Shoulder. I like this melodic rocker – check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Ohmme Facebook page; Kansas website; Elvis Costello website; JJ Wilde Facebook page; YouTube