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Proto-Kaw - Early Recordings from Kansas 1971-1973 CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.75 | 54 ratings

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5 stars Proto-Kaw may be one of the best feel-good stories in the history of progressive music. And the release of this album may represent one of the most important events in progressive music in the past couple of decades. I’m quite sure this is not an overstatement.

There certainly are very few bands (if any) who first recorded music in the early seventies, then left those tracks for dead and pursued lives outside of music for more than thirty years, only to pick up their instruments again in their middle-age years and emerge as an instantly credible force in the progressive movement. A simply stunning achievement by any measure. A human time-capsule, if you will.

For those not familiar with the Proto-Kaw story, a brief overview: The songs that make up this compilation were recorded by the second of three early seventies bands to bear the name Kansas.

The first included composer and multi-instrumentalist Kerry Livgren, drummer Phil Ehart and bassist Dave Hope. That band had the dubious distinction of being the opening band in New Orleans in December 1970 for the Doors’ last performance before Jim Morrison’s death. But the band fractured soon after and Ehart and Hope moved on to form White Clover which became the incarnation of Kansas that would take the American music scene by storm in the mid-seventies.

The ‘other’ Kansas was formed in 1971 by Livgren and included vocalist Lynn Meredith, keyboardist Dan Wright, and pianist-flautist-saxophonist Don Montre from the first Kansas, along with flautist-saxophonist John Bolton, bassist Rod Mikinski, and drummer Zeke Low (who was soon replaced by Brad Schulz). That band toured a more humble local circuit than the other two Kansas bands, but also played a much more elaborate and progressive style of music, which unfortunately only served to hasten their demise in the conservative breadbasket known as the state of Kansas. Livgren alone moved on to fame and fortune in the third and final Kansas, which consisted of the White Clover group and him. The remaining members eventually laid down their instruments and went about their lives, all of them leaving their musical dreams behind them. Meredith made his living coaching football, Wright pursued a career in public broadcasting, Bolton returned to college, Schulz moved to Idaho to do whatever people do there (probably something involving potatoes and guns), and the late Don Montre launched a career in medicine before passing away in 1989.

That version of Kansas left behind only a few memories. There were a couple sentences and a photograph included in the Kansas biography that was published with the Epic Records boxed-set in 1994. And there were three sets of tapes – one from what was known as the Cavern Sessions recorded in late 1971; one that included four demo tracks recorded in a Topeka Kansas studio the following summer; and two live tracks from one of the band’s last performances in late 1972. These are the ‘lost’ songs contained on this album. For thirty years the recordings languished in the shoeboxes and closets of the various former members of the band. They were also in the hands of Dawayne Bailey, an early friend of the band who achieved his own fame with the band Chicago and later Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band. Time changes things, and in the case of Proto-Kaw one of those eventual changes was a little thing called the World Wide Web. Bailey’s copies of those early recordings found their way into the internet in the nineties, in many cases being passed off as bootleg versions of early Kansas music. This led eventually to Cuneiform Records deciding to release them in 2002, which in turn led to Livgren seeking out the original band members to obtain their consent. The rest if history. Come to think of it, everything up to that point is history – the ‘rest’ is the present story.

While this release didn’t make much of an impact, it did lead to the original members getting together for a release party, which led to them getting back behind their instruments and picking out a few of the old songs together, which led to one of the most improbable reunions in music history. To make a long story long (but bring it to an end here anyway), the members (minus Mikinski) returned with a vengeance, touring America and releasing two new albums of new material over the next three and a half years, including ‘The Wait of Glory’ early in 2006. The band launched a European tour co-headlining with Pallas, gloriously dubbed the “Worth the Wait” tour, and is currently making plans for their future.

Feel good yet?

So what about this music? Like I said, it’s like opening a time-capsule after thirty years. Actually, it is in fact opening a time capsule after thirty years, and what wonderful contents are laid inside. Sure, the music on this CD probably doesn’t break any new ground in terms of composition, style, or theme. But it has a pure and unadulterated progressive sound of the highest order, prototypical of the early works of the progressive giants of their day like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, ELP and yes, even Kansas to a certain degree. And Livgren was undoubtedly influenced by these bands. But the Proto-Kaw sound is also improvisational at times, imbued with that ethereal feeling that comes from living among the rows of wheat on the Kansas prairie, and uniquely American in its delivery. It also bears noting that these are all very young musicians (all in their early 20s), with very little formal training, and virtually no musical community around them to support their style and efforts. This is tabula rasa stuff, at its finest.

The opening track “Hegemonium” starts with Wright’s lazy Hammond interlaced with Montre’s piano in a long intro that immediately calls to mind early Camel recordings, but that notion is dispelled as Bolton’s flute gives way to dueling saxophones from Montre and Bolton that could have come straight from King Crimson or even Van der Graaf Generator (although it’s hard to imagine these guys had ever heard of VdGG). Above this comes Meredith’s vocals which have been compared to Greg Lake, but for me immediately bring to mind Pat Moran of the semi-legendary early seventies band Spring (except that Meredith, unlike Moran, seems to have mastered the art of articulation). Livgren commands attention with his powerful guitar work that sounds closer to Deep Purple than the Allman Brothers-sounding riffs he would favor on the first couple of Kansas albums. The lyrics here are quite unlike Livgren’s later spiritually-minded works. Instead the themes are more mystic, fantasy-based with references to maggots and worms, horned villains wielding axes, and dismembered bodies. Pretty dire stuff, much heavier than most of Livgren’s later work. The extended instrumental at the end is full of atonal saxophones and dissonant keyboard chords, eventually winding down with a lulled interplay of Livgren’s jazzy guitar work amid the bleating, improvisational saxophones, and punctuated by a guttural screech from Meredith to mark the end, both literally and figuratively. At just under eight minutes, this is also one of the shorter tracks on the album. I’m quite sure if this track had been on any of a dozen or so albums from well-known progressive bands in 1971 it would have become a well- known classic. As it is, there is nothing to compare to the feeling of fresh discovery of this thirty-five year old gem when hearing it for the first time today. Great stuff!

“Reunion in the Mountains of Sarne” winds up with more luscious electric piano and flute, along with Wright’s ever-present Hammond. Zeke Low lays down a martial drumbeat that seems to be a kind of recurring theme on the first several tracks of this collection. With a title like this, I already liked the song before ever hearing it. And after hearing it I like it even more. The melodic flute and piano set a beautiful tone for Meredith’s vocals, laying out a tale of a warlike tribe of ancient hunter-gatherers who perpetuate their violent lifestyle to their sons, eventually leading to destruction of their land and themselves. This is more like the Livgren lyrics we came to know from songs like “Cheyenne Anthem” and “Song for America”, but the saxophones, flute, and omnipresent piano give this a much more polished and expansive feel than either of those Kansas songs – which is saying a lot considering both of those tracks are classics in their own right. This is an incredibly soulful and emotional work that would undoubtedly have been considered an epic if it had been released on the public way back when it was first recorded. This is probably my favorite track on the album (other than “Belexes”, which gets an asterisk).

“Nactolos 21” also opens with a strident piano progression, but about half a minute in the air is shattered by the atonal and violent cacophony of Montre and Bolton on saxophone. Okay, this had to have been influenced by King Crimson, and probably a little bit of Yes. But once that is over the horns, piano and drums take on a grooving rhythm that are instantly associated with only one thing – Chicago II (“Fancy Colours”, “It Better End Soon”). And I can pretty much guarantee the boys in the band were very familiar with that album. The heartfelt angst in Meredith’s voice is completely convincing as this young man of the Vietnam War and peacenik era wails

“Standing alone, feeling it be - why is it so hard just to live? Biting my soul, just trying to be, what is that they're looking for?

If you can't live, lifting yourself - why do you drag down someone else?”

The tempo shifts in this track are incredible, with the entire mood of the song changing midway through to a flute/piano riff with a jazzy flute/bass groove that I can’t really compare to anyone. Admittedly there’s a bit of noodling here, but again – these songs have been in a box for over thirty years, so this is kind of like a gift from a small child who is smiling when he hands it to you. Smile and don’t quibble.

Next up is a song that like’s a delicate ancient leaf flawlessly preserved in amber. “Belexes” has always been one of my all-time favorite Kansas songs, which is really saying something for a hard-core Kansas fanboy. The long guitar sustains that Livgren plays during this song on Kansas’ 1974 debut give me goose-bumps even today. Well, that’s yet another Livgren tune, and apparently an old one as it was part of those 1972 studio tracks I mentioned earlier. Now, you would think that this would be a great opportunity for a side-by-side comparison of Steve Walsh and Lynn Meredith. And you could do that, I suppose. Okay, I did it….. shoot me. And at first I thought – ugh, no way Meredith can hit the highs like Walsh did on this song. And he can’t. Then again, Walsh can’t hit them any more either, but that’s beside the point I suppose. And don’t get me wrong, I’m an absolutely huge fan of Steve Walsh, even though I strongly suspect he’s not exactly what you’d call a nice person. Then again, I don’t have to live with him, I just listen to his music. So it goes. Anyway, Meredith has this rhythmic attribute to his singing that just really grows after a while, I can’t quite explain it. So on this song (I mentioned it was pretty much my favorite Kansas song, right?), Meredith does that thing he does with his voice, and I still think this is one of my favorite songs. Wright’s keyboard work isn’t as stellar as Walsh’s though, but again – gift, smile, don’t quibble, right?

Oh yeah, and Livgren does the sustains on this version too. Just love those….

Okay, now “Totus Nemesis” is by far the most dated-sounding track on the album. Meredith drops a half-octave or so and could easily pass for Mike Pinera or Edgar Winter, or maybe even that dude from Captain Beyond’s second album. Plus the Hammond is pretty much serving up blues-cum-psych riffs straight out of a Jefferson Airplane concert. Montre backs it all up with his subdued saxophone and the drums are pretty standard one-two proto-sounding fare. This song has so many early seventies clichés that it would have been a perfect choice to include in the Spinal Tap flashback scene. The one where the drummer explodes. Of course, no one knew about these tapes back when that came out (what was it – 1984 or so?). Where was the World Wide Web when we needed it? This track goes on forever (if 13:54 can be considered forever), and there are hours upon hours (okay, three of four minutes) of the same atonal horns and dirge-like rhythm here that were first heard on “Nactolos 21”. The whole thing just kind of degenerates after a while into Wright and drummer Schulz trying to outdo the other before an abrupt cessation. This is another track that convinces me these guys were big King Crimson fans (that and several interviews I’ve read with both Livgren and Meredith where they actually said they were huge King Crimson fans). Very dated sound, but if you didn’t like old art and symphonic music you wouldn’t be reading this, so I think you’re going to like it.

By the time “Greek Structure Sunbeam” comes around I’m actually starting to get into the dated feel of this album. That's a good thing, because this another track with a very dated feel from of the light guitar, wistful flower-power tunes of that era, and another song that gets an extra point just for the title. Pure 1972, that one.

The other “Kansas” tune here is “Incomudro”, which the ‘other’ Kansas would include on their ‘Song for America’ album three years after this version of Kansas first recorded it. The first time I played this I skipped straight to the drum solo towards the end of the song, just to see if Schulz had the same level of skin-slapping as Phil Ehart. He doesn’t. Not even close. I was actually a bit embarrassed for Schulz. And here again Meredith delivers finesse and soul, where Walsh would deliver god-like soaring vocals and soul. So they both have soul, which is nice. But this is just a great tune, plus it has one of the all-time best lines Livgren ever put on a piece of paper:

“I wonder what you'd think if all the changes didn't come?

For growing old is only going back to where you're from.”

And speaking of Livgren, his guitar work on this track is actually better in my opinion than it was on ‘Song for America’. There’s more texture and less emphasis on power, which combined with Meredith’s rich voice and Montre’s passionate piano really reinforce the introspective message in this song. Kansas blows your socks off with this number; Proto-Kaw makes you stop what you are doing, listen, and think. Powerful stuff. Kind of makes you wonder what would have been if Wally Gold had come to listen to these guys play instead of White Clover….

“Cyclopy” is the first of two live recordings, and among the last played by the band their first time around. This was probably recorded in a bar or dance hall or something, and even though it might have been from the soundboard (or might not, although it sounds like it was), the sound is quite muddled and especially the bass and drums are quite flat. That aside, this is another jazzy/psych/Chicago on ‘ludes number that takes on a different level of sound when you know it’s been lurking in the shadows waiting for you to hear it all these years. Put in the context of 1972 this probably went over hugely with the ‘Deadhead’ type of crowd that was probably listening to it.

Finally, the album ends with “Skont”, another Deep Purple-influenced, dirge-like dark number with plenty of torrid guitar from Livgren and a particularly wicked bass line. This song appears on video with the special edition version of the band’s latest album ‘The Wait of Glory’, and that version is a bit more improvisational and jazzy than this one, although any time you have saxophones in a song there’s some level of improvisation no matter what. This is a perfect segue to the rest of Livgren’s career, as the lyrics set the stage for the theme of just about everything he would write for the next thirty years or so:

“And from deep within our being are the hopes of every man, and the one who is the reaper is the keeper of the plan.

If the firmament will crumble to the roaring of the sea, He will always be there waiting for the souls of you and me.”

Prophetic, both in the semantics and in the preview of what was to come from the pen of Livgren for many years. This is kind of a brooding song, and again there’s some noodling that probably isn’t necessary, but the Hammond and flute portions are quite brilliant. Wright’s organ sound predates Peter Frampton’s famous live album by several years, but sounds remarkably similar. The end comes to soon as far as I’m concerned.

Well, I’m looking back now and seeing that I’ve rambled on far, far too long once again, so I’ll wrap up. I’ve said many times that music is best appreciated in context, and that couldn’t be more true than it is in this case. This is an amazing discovery that comes to light at the perfect time – when we have all survived the eighties and the nineties, and are seeing finally a renewed interest in music that is deep, thoughtful, and delivered with passion. If you can keep that in mind while listening to this album, I believe you will be moved to truly appreciate it as a vital piece of American progressive history. I wasn’t going to give this five stars since I don’t think it really qualifies as a masterpiece. But I do think it is essential simply because it represents that sliver of amber that stops time, and it almost got away from us. Thanks yet again to Al Gore for that whole internet thing, so we can finally enjoy this music. Five stars.


ClemofNazareth | 5/5 |


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