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Guitarist Richard Williams on 40 years of Kansas

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Richard Williams of Kansas Richard Williams of Kansas

Richard Williams, guitarist for Kansas, says that it doesn't seem possible that his band is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. 'It really is incredible to me,' Williams told me in a recent phone interview. 'I feel like I've lived 10 lifetimes over the last 40 years.'  

From the start, the members of Kansas were unified in the belief that they had what it took to reach the big time. From their humble beginning as a local Topeka band playing proms and bars to (a few years later) racking up huge radio hits like 'Carry on My Wayward Son' and 'Dust in the Wind' and selling out two nights at Madison Square Garden, Williams says that when 'the big time' arrived, the members of Kansas had no idea how popular they had become.

'We were on our way to those shows where we recorded part of the live album Two For The Show.' Our manager was in the car and was just beside himself. He kept saying Guys, this is so big. This is huge!' We had no idea [Madison Square Garden] was just another show to us. More than anything, we were nave. We were totally unaffected by that success. We didn't realize until much later just how big Kansas was at that time.'  

As part of a 40th anniversary tour, Kansas is looking forward to an extra special show on Aug. 17. All six original members of the band, including Kerry Livgren and Robbie Steinhardt, will be on stage for a fan appreciation concert in Pittsburgh, in the same building where they played their first headlining show. Kansas will play two sets of music that night. During the first, they'll be accompanied by an orchestra, followed by a set as a band.  

Dow: Take me back to the early days of Kansas when you guys opened for other bands. Did you go out there with the intention of outperforming the headliners?

Williams: In those days, we were six guys attached at the hip. We didn't have wives, no children and no houses. There wasn't any money either this is all we had. We were like a pirate ship rolling down the road a force to be reckoned with. And we had the bravado and testosterone that went with it. Since we were playing a style of music that wasn't instantly palatable to everybody, we had a chip on our shoulder. When we opened for another band in the early days, we had the attitude of, 'OK, follow that!' We were a bit aggressive at the time.

Dow: Who were some of the bands that had to follow Kansas?  

Williams: One of the first gigs that comes to mind was a show in Parsons, Kansas when we opened for Blue Oyster Cult. They used our PA system and blew it up (laughing).

When we were starting out, Aerosmith was also just getting started, and we did some shows together. At first we really liked them. I'm not exactly sure why but the tables turned. I remember a show we played in Kansas City at this old place called Memorial Hall on the Kansas side. We were co-headlining with Aerosmith and went on first. Steven Tyler wasn't exactly happy with how well we were going over and he literally pulled the plug on us. He actually reached down and disconnected the power to the stage. He was very lucky that he wasn't beaten to death by our bass player. We were shocked by that. Why would he do that unless he thought that we were showing them up? We thought it was going to be a great night of music with two great bands but Steven got his panties in a wad.  

Dow: Wow. It sounds like he was worried about how well the crowd was responding to Kansas.  

Williams: Right. Why would he do that unless he thought that we were showing them up? The thing is, we really liked them. We thought they were a great band. Obviously, they played a different style of music from us, but back then, that didn't matter.

Dow: It's been a while since Kansas has played in Maine. I hope you'll be able to make it here one of these tours. What do you think of when you think of Maine?

Williams: In the late '70s and early '80s, we always looked forward to coming to Maine. The promoter would have a huge lobster dinner catered backstage for the band and crew. We would have a countdown in the band: 'Three more days to Maine lobster. Two more days (laughing).' For me, going to Maine is almost other-worldly. It's so different from the rest of the country. It's almost like you're going into a different country. First of all, it's so beautiful there. There is so much history, and the waterfront areas are so unique. Even the way people speak in Maine is different from what we're used to. These days we live in Georgia and Kansas, but we travel all over and there is nothing else that compares to Maine. I really wish we could get there more often.  

Dow: Has Kansas experienced any 'Spinal Tap' moments over the last 40 years? 

Williams: That movie is probably on every rock tour bus. I think every band can relate to it. We've had so many Spinal Tap moments over the years, it's ridiculous. Take the 'Stonehenge' scene - we had a lightning machine that was always giving us trouble. The 'Hello Cleveland!' scene where they get lost on their way to the stage that actually happened to us - in Cleveland! (laughing) When we saw it for the first time, we were like, 'The people who wrote this moviewere they on the road with us?'

Dow: As a guitarist, which Kansas songs do you enjoy playing the most on stage?   

Williams: The most fun for me is the usually the latest song we've added to the set because it's still kind of new and you're more or less playing by the seat of your pants. I still enjoy playing 'Dust in the Wind' because we don't play anything else like it. From the first note, it strikes a chord with everyone in the room. Everyone has their own story about the song, and it's just a great thing to be a part of. 

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard each morning on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville),104.7 (Bangor/Belfast) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor)

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