STILLWATER, Okla. — College students who weren't alive the last time the rock group Kansas had a hit are playing with the band on its latest tour – a series of performances with university symphonies.
The '70s supergroup known for songs like "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry On Wayward Son" is touring several states to play with student musicians after what it thought was a one-time performance last year for its 35th anniversary. But the orchestra and band complemented each other so well a tour was born.
"If our music didn't fit so well symphonically we might give it a second thought, but it's a natural progression for symphonies and Kansas to play together," said drummer Phil Ehart, adding that the group "didn't have to do a lot of shoehorning to get the orchestra to fit."
The band whose members are now in their 50s and 60s released its first album in 1974 and had hits including "Point of Know Return," "People of the South Wind" and "All I Wanted," which in 1986 became its last major hit. "Even still today, those are songs that everybody should know," said 23-year-old Oklahoma State senior Colby Bunch, a drummer in the school's symphony who will play with Kansas on Thursday and Friday as part of the tour that includes stops in Alabama, Missouri, Texas and, of course, Kansas.
After Kansas played last year with the Washburn University symphony in Topeka, Kan. – a concert that was recorded and sold as an album – representatives of the group called schools to see if their symphonies would be interested in a joint show. The lure: an outside consultant would help raise funds for financially strapped music schools from donors at each university at which the band performed.
"A lot of schools are struggling and the first thing to always be cut is the arts side," Ehart said.
Kansas will donate a portion of its merchandise sales and the band's record company will donate part of the proceeds from CD and DVD sales at the concerts. In addition, for each school, music accessory manufacturer D'Addario is kicking in a $2,000 scholarship for a student and donating $3,000 worth of music equipment.
The financial benefits to the deal were a nice touch, said Skip Snead, the director of music at the University of Alabama, where Kansas played two dates this month. But the musical ones were significant too.
"Getting to work in that genre and style was a great opportunity for our students," Snead said. "Our students, following the concert, felt they had a much greater and deeper appreciation for Kansas and their musicianship and who they are than they did beforehand."
Uwe Gordon, the 50-something principal at Stillwater High School, has seen four Kansas concerts, sometimes decorates his office using the group's album covers and is a key reason the group will be playing in Oklahoma. Brant Adams, the head of Oklahoma State's Department of Music, said the university's 800-seat performing arts center was too small to host the show, so he asked Gordon if he could use the high school's 1,200-seat venue.
"He said, 'If you get me a T-shirt, because I've lost my old Kansas T-shirts.' So, on that very sophisticated contract, we agreed that we would do this," Adams said. Both the university and high school will benefit, he said.
Erin Tingler, 49, who plays the cello in Oklahoma State's symphony, counts Kansas' 1976 release "Leftoverture" as one of the first albums she ever bought.
"One thing that sets Kansas apart is the orchestration, the strings that they add in," she said.
Students like Bunch are reveling in the chance to play with a band that their parents may have listened to.
"Kansas to me is one of the last bands that genuinely were really, really talented, awesome, trained musicians that had that perfection to their art," he said. "Especially seeing it on paper as we're playing it in orchestra, with key changes and time signature changes and everything like that."
Conductor Larry Baird, who's also worked with the Moody Blues, developed orchestral arrangements of Kansas songs to be played during the concerts and is conducting the college shows.
Ehart said Kansas tried to draw something from each of its albums, but notes, "you have to be careful when you pick this music out. An orchestra can make rock songs into elevator music if you're not careful."