The most common images that come to mind when we think of prog rock are probably those of lavishly dressed Englishmen: Keith Emerson adorned in full chainmail regalia, making violent love to his keyboards in front of a sold-out stadium; Chris Squire in a lavender jumpsuit and accompanying magenta cape, attacking his bass with such fury that one wrong note may cause a rip in the space-time continuum; Peter Gabriel fully immersed in his onstage roles as a fox, a flower, an alien overlord or whatever this is.
As much as U.S. audiences devoured the fruits of prog-rock Britannia, only a few Americans actually attempted to get in on the action. Our primary musical export during the height of the prog era were volume-pushing boogie rock acts Grand Funk Railroad, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Rare Earth. This was perhaps because American musicians generally cut their teeth on more technically rudimentary styles such as blues and R&B while English musicians were more likely to have been indoctrinated with the superfluous notes of European classical music from birth.
When prog rock finally did sprout up from American soil, it was not from the mean, primordial punk streets of New York City nor the sun-kissed, singer-songwriter paradise that was Los Angeles. Instead, it erupted from a cornfield in Topeka, Kansas.
With the release of a self-titled album in March 1974, a denim-clad rock ‘n’ roll sextet traded husking for cosmic musical exploration and took on the name of their home state, Kansas.
While Kansas would exhibit many of the same musical qualities as their English peers, one of their members set the band apart from the standard keyboard/guitar/flute arsenal of the brits: violinist and co-lead singer Robby Steinhardt.
Steinhardt, who died this week at the age of 71, never wore chainmail, never wore a cape, and never once dressed as a fox. Aside from his formidable beard and hair, Steinhardt let the music do the talking.
He was not the first prog violinist (Englishman David Cross’s absorption into King Crimson in 1973 predates the first Kansas record by a year, and Jean-Luc Ponty added some maddening string parts to Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats a few years prior, if that even counts as prog), but he was certainly the first violinist to wield the instrument in a manner that made it his band’s defining feature. Similar to how Ian Anderson’s jester-like flute-playing has forever cemented Jethro Tull as “the band with the flute,” Kansas will always be (lesser) known as “the band with the violin.”
If you’re in the most common category of individuals who have only heard three Kansas songs, then you’re undoubtedly familiar with at least two of Steinhardt’s defining musical moments: the lightning-fast hook on “Point of Know Return" and the show-stopping violin solo at the peak of “Dust in the Wind.”
At peak musical form, Kansas was a very guitar-and-key-heavy band, somersaulting through endlessly looping riffs and runs, sometimes pausing for (and occasionally accompanied by) Steinhardt’s violin. It's this dispersing of duties that made Steinhardt such an essential part of Kansas’ DNA. His playing does not resemble the virtuosic application of the violin in lavish, European classical music. Instead, it sounds more like a down-home fiddle, something you’d hear at a seaside dock or in the corner of a saloon. It’s a very American take on the violin, giving an otherwise very English style of music a decidedly midwestern flavor.
Steinhardt was the critical bridge between bombastic prog rock and humble Americana. Subtract his violin from Kansas’ recordings, and you simply have a highly eccentric version of Grand Funk Railroad or a really heavy version of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
While Steinhardt was not one of Kansas’ chief songwriters (he only participated in the co-writing of four songs across the band’s first eight albums), he was the band’s link to their audience, serving as frontman and emcee between songs while primary lead vocalist Steve Walsh was typically stranded behind keyboards. But Robby Steinhardt was always there, front and center. Even songs that did not feature his primary instrument at all — like the signature “Carry On Wayward Son” — feature his harmonically rich voice as an indelible part of the band’s presentation. He was a midwestern Chris Squire, an American titan of prog rock. One of the few.
In 1975, Canadian power trio Rush left their Led Zeppelinisms behind and made the jump to prog with the addition of drummer Neil Peart; Todd Rundgren rejected his newfound commercial success by overdosing on prog excess with his new band Utopia (A 33-minute song called “The Ikon?” We love you, Todd, but will pass).
By the time Kansas reached its commercial peak in the late '70s, prog was high and dry. Punk rock had revolutionized economical music-making, and any kind of music that wasted time with wanker-heavy solos, lofty, unrelatable themes and unnecessary rhythm changes, was impolitely shown the door. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were commercially dead from excess, King Crimson had effectively committed suicide to avoid any kind of irrelevance, and MTV was a few years away from giving new life to Yes, Genesis, Styx, Asia and any other former merchants of prog excess that were able to adapt to the new way.
Steinhardt left Kansas in 1982 as the band shifted toward a more commercial, less progressive style. He reunited with the band a number of times over the next few years, before playing his final gig with them in 2006. In a post announcing Steinhardt’s death, his wife Cindy Steinhardt revealed that he had just recorded his first solo album with producer Michael Franklin and had tentative plans to tour in support of the record this fall. Until those recordings see the light of day, we are simply left to enjoy Steinhardt’s bountiful body of work with Kansas. So here are our choices for Robby Steinhardt’s five most underrated and essential contributions to American prog rock:
“Song for America,” from Song for America
Debatably Kansas’ magnum opus (even more so than their song titled “Magnum Opus”), the opening title track to the band’s 1975 sophomore album lays out a majestic and bittersweet tale of man’s discovery of the American continent, only to spoil its riches as humans tend to do. Steinhardt’s violin is the central instrument, leading an analog fleet of guitars, synthesizers and piano as the band paints an auditory picture of a formative America’s vast, varied, untouched beauty for nearly four uninterrupted minutes before any vocals enter. When they do, Walsh and Steinhardt share singing duties as they survey the paradise before them: “Painted desert, sequined sky, stars that fill the night, here all life abounds, rivers flowing to the sea, sunshine pure and bright, here all life abounds, no man rules this land, no human hand has soiled this paradise.” “Icarus (Borne on Wings of Steel),” from Masque
One of the tropes of '70s prog rock is that many bands had a tendency to adapt preexisting legends and tales as epic 20+ minute sidelong musical assignments (see Genesis’ 23-minute “Supper’s Ready” based loosely on the book of Revelations). Thankfully, Kansas was much more restrained in its attempts to tackle the classics. There’s no better example of this than the band's perfectly concise six-minute anthem that doesn’t attempt to retell the titular Greek legend verbatim, but rather casts its doomed subject as an antihero of sorts, determined to live (and die) by his own volition. “Journey From Mariabronn,” from Kansas
Kansas’ mastery of “traditional” prog rock is galvanized by the end of the first side of its self-titled debut album, where Steinhardt weaves a braid between his own nautical violin, Kerry Livgren’s alternating guitars and keys, and drummer Phil Ehart’s rivet-like drumming. On “Mariabronn’s fierce verses, one can hear what sounds like a cello powering the band harder than any of its electric instrumentation. Whether Steinhardt switched to cello or simply buckled down on the lower ends of his violin is undetermined. The song’s power is proof enough that Kansas’ prog rock Americana was a viable musical idea. “Portrait (He Knew),” from Point of Know Return or Two for the Show (Live)
Kansas members always had an American urge to boogie, but being the explorers that they were, they would only boogie if they could do it on their own terms. While the band rides a fierce blues shuffle, Steinhardt commands the groove like a clipper ship caught in a crosswind. Add Livgren’s cryptic lyrics about Albert Einstein (or Jesus?) and “Portrait” becomes one of Kansas’ most accessible, fascinating and underrated rockers. Also, if you happen to snag a copy of the band’s live album Two for the Show, the song’s monstrous climax serves as a butter-smooth transition directly into “Carry On Wayward Son.” That moment in itself will give you goosebumps.
“Cheyenne Anthem,” from Leftoverture
One of Steinhardt’s most peaceful lead vocal showcases, “Cheyenne Anthem” is a pinnacle of Kansas’ fascination with the Native American peoples that gave the band, their home state and their hometown their names, as evidenced in the lyrics: “You have come to move me, take me from my ancient home, land of my fathers, I can't leave you now, we will share it with you, no man owns this Earth we're on.” In many ways, it feels like a lyrical sequel to "Song for America," instead casting the Cheyenne people as defenders of the Sacred Earth, guarding it from invaders from afar.