Kansas came to Santa Barbara on Feb. 2, with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival screening the world premiere of Kansas: Miracles Out of Nowhere at the Lobero Theatre, an entertaining and inspiring documentary film about the band who gave us such beloved songs as "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry On Wayward Son."
As a special treat, Kansas band members Phil Ehart (drums), Richard Williams (guitar) and Robby Steinhardt (violin) were in attendance, along with former band manager Budd Carr and the film's director, Charley Randazzo.
The film focuses on the miracle of how the band rose from their humble beginnings in the "expansive nothingness" of the state of Kansas to their worldwide commercial success with the aforementioned hits, which amazingly were written at the last minute by the band's musical genius, Kerry Livgren, at the end of the recording sessions of the respective albums on which they appear.
The documentary maintains a positive tone throughout, but it does so without feeling whitewashed. In an interview with Noozhawk, Ehart said they wanted to keep the focus on "where these six guys came from and where they ended up, and what that trip was like."
He adds, "If it's a good story and a true story, and kind of a miraculous story, you don't really need a lot of other stuff that doesn't affect the story."
So there are no tales of sex and drugs and intra-band disputes. But that's fine, because there's plenty of rock and roll, including studio tracks and vintage live footage.
The six band members each get their proper due in the film, as does the late music executive Don Kirshner.
"We didn't really realize all the stuff [Kirshner] had done for us," Ehart says, "and how he hung in there with us until we went back and made this film."
The amusing story of how the band signed with Kirshner's company is one of the highlights of the film. The band had submitted a demo tape, and eventually Kirshner's right-hand man, Wally Gold, called them from New York City saying he wanted to check them out in concert. The band knew this was their big shot, so they rented the opera house in the tiny town of Ellinwood, Kan., and to ensure a large, enthusiastic audience they put up signs all over the area advertising that there would be free beer at the concert. It worked — they got signed.
The funniest part of the film concerns Kansas' opening slot for Aerosmith in the early days. It turns out that Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler didn't appreciate having opening bands steal the show, and would sometimes resort to unplugging the opening band's power cords during their performance to stop that from happening. So when Kansas played at Wichita, their crew set up dummy extension cords so that nothing happened when Tyler pulled them out. The band played on! An after-show visit from Kansas bass player Dave Hope put an end to Tyler's antics once and for all.
In the most moving scene in the film, all six original band members get together to re-create the iconic photo from the back cover of their first album. It was the first time they had all been together in decades, and it was particularly special because two band members have recently had serious health issues — Livgren had a stroke in 2009, and Steinhardt had a heart attack in 2013.
When asked to reflect on what he learned from his involvement with the film, Ehart says, "I think a lot of us didn't really realize at the time how famous we were." And regarding the premiere, he says, "Obviously at the end of the film when the credits stopped rolling and the film was over, when the whole crowd stands up and gives you a two-minute standing ovation, that is definitely something I didn't expect.
"That was very gratifying, and somewhat emotional. You just kind of go, 'Oh my gosh, I guess they really liked it.' It was a great experience."
Singer Steve Walsh recently retired from the band, leaving Ehart and Williams as the only original members. When asked about the future, Ehart tells Noozhawk, "We're looking hopefully to do a new record in 2016. We just continue to tour, and love to tour and love to play.
"We've got great music. People love to come see us. We're just very fortunate to still be here. So those are the plans — to keep Kansas music out there."
If you missed it at the film festival or want to see it again, the DVD version of Kansas: Miracles Out of Nowhere will be released for purchase on March 24. You might want to consider the Limited Edition version of the DVD with a one-hour bonus disc, available only by clicking here.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.