RATINGS: A = must own B = buy it C= average D = yawn F = puke

Kansas – Miracles out of Nowhere (Documentary)

Rating: A+

This review is going to be much different than those I usually write, as it is much more meaningful to me than most things that come across my desk.  Kansas, the band, is very close to my heart for several reasons, not the least of which is that they introduced me to the world of rock and roll and they are from my hometown of Topeka, Kansas.   

In 1973, Phil Ehart, Dave Hope, Kerry Livgren, Robby Steinhardt, Steve Walsh, and Richard Williams began a journey that would take them from high school gymnasiums, farmhouses and school busses to Madison Square Garden, world tours and limousines.  Who would have believed that six kids living on Buchannan Street in a rented band house in Topeka, Kansas would end up headlining arenas around the world and having their music played around the clock on FM radio stations? Kansas created not one, but two of the very best rock songs to be released in the 1970s with the haunting ballad “Dust in the Wind” and the rock anthem “Carry On Wayward Son.”   

In 1973, I was also in Topeka, Kansas not even aware of who these guys were, as I was only seven years old, at the time.  By the time I was ten, however, everyone in Topeka knew of the band Kansas, even older people, as proved by my introduction to the band’s music via my grandparent’s Max and Margret Baker who lived on Stratford Road in Topeka.

I was just starting to get into rock and roll music.  I had picked up a few albums, yet didn’t have the money to buy records yet, so I got my hands on my older sister’s cheap tape recorder. It sat in my bedroom next to my transistor radio.  As I listened to local FM station V-100, I would tape songs onto cassette tapes.  My grandfather knew of my newfound interest in music, and during a visit to his house told me that “Mr. and Mrs. Williams, next door, have a son who is in a music combo.  I told her you liked music and she said for you to come over and see her.” 

Curious, I walked next door and knocked on the William’s front door.  Mrs. Williams answered and asked me to come in.  She asked me if I was familiar with the band Kansas and showed me her living room wall which was decorated with Gold and Platinum Record awards.  My jaw dropped and my eyes became wide, and all I could do was look at those shiny discs before my eyes.  I had my own copy of these albums, having purchased them at Paul’s Records & Tapes on the corner of Oakley and Huntoon Street, only a few blocks from the Williams’ home. 

Mr. and Mrs. Williams son, it turned out, was none other than Rich Williams of the band Kansas.  For the next several years, Mrs. Williams would call me over to her home to give me the latest release by Kansas, or a concert t-shirt, or a tour program, signed by Rich, of course.  There was not any way I was not going to be a major Kansas fan with treatment like that!  Kansas were then, and are still today, my favorite band… not even Mrs. Williams’ collection of Beatles records could compete with those Gold and Platinum records on her living room wall! I was destined to be a rock nerd from that very moment in time. 

I have had the pleasure to interview nearly all of the members who have been in Kansas, some several times.  The only one missing from my collection is Dave Hope, and maybe one day I will talk with him.  It is always a thrill to spend time with the guys.  I have been blessed to get to know Rich Williams and Phil Ehart over the years, as well.  As cool as that has always been for me, I have never felt more Kansas pride then when I viewed their new documentary, titled Miracles Out of Nowhere, which tells the tale of the six original members of Kansas and how, in a few short years, they went from wide-eyed Midwestern teenagers to internationally successful musicians.  This is the story of how it happened, told by the guys who were there every step of the way.  It is the story of giving away free beer to pack the house to impress record executive Wally Gold, attempted stage sabotage by a guy who’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to finally writing a hit song called “Carry On Wayward Son” and more.   

The success of Kansas was made possible through the creative efforts of main songwriter Kerry Livgren.  His compositional skills were not enough, however, to take the band to the big-time.  Kansas was a team effort, and any song had to go through the Kansas meat grinder where the other band members would craft the tune into ‘Kansas’ music.  The process was tough on all involved, but it paid off as the songs came out the other side dripping with originality, personality and passion. 

The odds, as depicted in the documentary, were stacked against these six young men.  They were not pin-up boys, they didn’t write pop music and they certainly didn’t look, let alone act, like rock stars… yet their music was special.  “Song for America,” “Icarus - Borne on Wings of Steel,” “Miracles Out of Nowhere,” “The Wall,” “Carry On Wayward Son,” “Dust in the Wind,” “Portrait (He Knew)” and “Point of Know Return” are but a few of the classic moments the band recorded on their first five albums, which is the scope of this documentary.

The documentary features in-depth interviews with all six original members, along with their producer at the time, Jeff Glixman.  They revisit the band’s beginnings and then go on to discuss each album and how it brought progress to their end game of success.  They speak openly about issues between songwriters Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh and give insights to the business side of the record industry as well.  There are also plenty of fun moments having to do with Steven Tyler, little people from the Wizard of Oz and traveling the Kansas country side in an unheated school bus in the dead of winter!   The band even returns to their hometown of Topeka and revisit some of their old stomping grounds, including taking a snapshot on the very spot they took the photo for the back of their self-titled debut album.  The homecoming is one of the most poignant moments of the documentary.       

There was, of course, more to the story than presented in the documentary.  Kansas was a rock band in the 1970s, so it is not too far of a stretch of the imagination to figure out there were other issues, egos and extra curricular activities going on within the band.  They are not discussed here and, truth be told, that sort of inner band, behind the curtain sensationalism is not what Miracles Out of Nowhere is about.  This is an uplifting story that shows how anything is possible if one has the talent, the tenacity and the naïveté combined with the dumb luck to push forward, believing in oneself along the way. The band succeeds in their goal of telling the story they set out to tell. 

Watching the documentary, I was taken back to an earlier time in my life.  I want to say a ‘better time’, but it was not so much better as it was more pure.  I was a rock and roll fan in Topeka and some guys from my neighborhood were making hit records.  What made it even more cool is that the members of Kansas were no so different than the guys I hung out with at Gage Bowl, or went to school with at Hayden High.  They were simply hometown heroes who hit the big time.   

I have attempted to get through this review without making any Wizard of Oz references, as the band has heard them all, put up with them a long time and even used a cliché from the famous film for a live album release recorded in Topeka titled Know Place Like Home. But the truth is, there really is no place like home.  Home, in this case, for this band is, surprisingly, not Topeka.  Topeka was the birthplace of the band, but home for the members of Kansas, whether they remained in the band or not, is on stage playing their music.  

Miracles Out of Nowhere does not allow us behind the curtain and it does not air any dirty laundry, but that’s not the point of this endeavor.  Instead, the documentary allows us to see the talents of each member and the genius of each song.  It allows us, the fans, to see who these guys are and it allows us to see what guys like Garth Brooks and Brian May of Queen like about this band, as well.  Seeing such famous people being fans of a band like Kansas is very enlightening.  The documentary shows how a fatherly figure in the record business named Don Kirshner took a risk and believed in these six goobers from the middle of nowhere and allowed them to make their own blend of music, allowing them the time they needed to succeed.   

Kansas was lucky, but it was not luck alone that gave them an opportunity.  No, their opportunity was earned by spending endless hours on the road, countless hours in the studio and an undying belief that the music of Kerry Livgren, mixed with the vocals of Steve Walsh, after being put through the Kansas meat grinder of Williams, Ehart, Steinhardt and Hope, was something special.

Indeed it was. 

Thank God for miracles!

By Jeb Wright