Big, bold music lent itself to big, bold themes. Guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren wrote consistently about his spiritual pilgrimage, testing the waters of a variety of religious expressions. Livgren's philosophical quest provided the band with their biggest airplay hits "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry On, Wayward Son."
Carry on was precisely what the band could not do. By 1980, Livgren had settled into a newfound Christian faith. Within the band, tensions grew as his lyrics became more Christ-centered. Livgren's solo effort, "Seeds of Change," and a book of the same name, detailed his conversion. Before the 1982 album, "Vinyl Confessions," could be recorded, vocalist Steve Walsh left. He was replaced by John Elefante, who seconded Livgren's Christian message. The album found a lot of listeners among dedicated Christians, and Livgren, increasingly disaffected, founded a new band, A.D., which recorded several albums for a Christian label. By the time Walsh returned to tour with the remnants of the band, Kansas was powered purely by fan affection and nostalgia.
Then, almost two years ago, Livgren, who now runs an independent music label, a recording studio, and a farm in (where else?) Kansas began writing music that reminded him of his old band. "I started working on my latest solo release," says Livgren, "and a lot of the music sounded very much like vintage-era Kansas. I wasn't trying to be `retro,' that's just what came out. So, I thought it'd be interesting to talk to the guys. I said, `I'm sitting here on an entire Kansas album worth of material,' and they got very excited and wanted to hear it. They said, `Nobody but Kansas should be doing this music.'"
After years of writing music that sounded like anything but Kansas, Livgren admits, "I'd given up on everything but what came to me most naturally, and I guess that's resulted in a slow, but inexorable move back toward my original, progressive-rock style.
Once the music had made its point, Livgren laid out his stipulations. First, he says, "I had to have absolute artistic license to say what I wanted to say, and much to my surprise they said no problem. But there were other things to be resolved, such as the gulf between us. There were some personal goals for me: I wanted to re-establish our friendships.
Livgren insisted that the original six players that started Kansas come back to record in the state where they had met in high school. "Everybody got along great," says Livgren. "In a way, we really didn't care if this sold or not--we do, of course, but that wasn't the major motivation. We said, let's make an album that we can be proud of, let's make an album that we as six musicians can look at for the rest of our lives and say, we really did something here. In many ways, that makes it a better album than if we had done it for different reasons."
Livgren admits that old tensions about his faith were still present. "I can best describe the songs as compositions by a Christian, but by no stretch would I describe them as `Christian music.' It doesn't fit the definition most people would apply. I had to tread carefully, because there's a fine line between compromise and going too far with it. I was in a situation where I am not the artist; the band is the artist. I may be a prominent member of the band, but it would not be fair for me to put the band in a position to be characterized as a Christian band, which is an uncomfortable thing."
"However," Livgren says, "subtle though it may be, there's a very obvious Christian worldview woven through every one of the songs on there. There's this slight uncomfortableness for me; I wish I could be more up front and just come out and say what I really want to say. On the other hand, the guys are saying `This is coming on a little strong for me.' So it puts me in an interesting spot, and I kind of like being there, to be honest with you."
For his strongest expressions of faith, Livgren has his solo project on his own label, Numavox. What sustains him, he says, can be traced through his creative work. "If you took every song that I've written on a Kansas album and all the solo projects, extracted all the lyrics, and put them in sequential form and read them as literature, I think you'd find a chronicle with a very strong spiritual vein running through the whole thing. That would fall into two categories: One is searching, and the other is found. I think the most significant thing about it is that there were some minor `founds' along the way, but once I hit upon the person of Jesus Christ, it's been a consistent 24 years of adherence to that faith, which speaks highly of the fact that it's real."
Kansas has been on tour all summer, playing major venues around America with Yes, but Livgren has stayed home. "I have an independent record label, I have a studio business, I teach a theology class on a regular basis, and I have my family obligations and a farm to run. It creates the illusion I didn't want to tour, and that's not true. The idea of writing this music and making this record, and then not being a part of the tour is not an easy pill for me to swallow. On the other hand, I had to weigh it in the balance."
As it stands, Livgren and Kansas have had a sudden resurgence of popularity. "People love reunions," he concludes. "There's something touching about it."