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After four decades, prog-rock act Kansas carries on

For more than four decades, Steve Walsh “poured his guts on stages all over the world,” said Kansas guitarist Richard Williams recently.

For more than four decades, Steve Walsh "poured his guts on stages all over the world," said Kansas guitarist Richard Williams recently.

But the singer and keyboardist performed his last show with the veteran progressive-rock act in August 2014.

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"It was sad, but OK, now what?" recalled Williams, on the phone recently from Milwaukee, where the band had a show that night. "OK, let's find somebody else. Onward."

With new frontman Ronnie Platt, who quickly replaced Walsh, Kansas accomplished something Williams thought might never happen again: In September, the group released "The Prelude Implicit," its 15th studio album and first record of new material since 2000. Platt and the resulting "Prelude" have rejuvenated the band, which plays the Lyric on Friday.

"This wasn't a grand finale," Williams, 66, said of the new album. "We're back. We're here to be creative again."

In the 1970s and early '80s, Kansas' creativity flowed, resulting in multiplatinum records and a couple of singles that remain the band's calling cards: "Carry On Wayward Son" and "Dust in the Wind." The band — which originated in Topeka, Kan., and today only counts Williams and drummer Phil Ehart as original members — went on to sell more than 30 million records, even though Williams said initial goals were much more modest.

"We wanted to make a record. That's how lofty our goals were," Williams said. "There was never a thought in the world that we could become famous nationwide, let alone play all over the world. Our idols in the Midwest never broke out of the Midwestern scene, so why would we?"

Early on, they released a few records and slowly expanded their touring, but Kansas was no cash cow, Williams said. The group, though, had a powerful resource behind it: Don Kirshner, the music publisher, producer and TV host who helped turn the Monkees into a pop-culture phenomenon.

Kansas, with its sprawling jams and garage-band vibes, was far from the Monkees, but Kirshner heard something he liked, Williams said. (Wally Gold, Kirshner's assistant, introduced Kansas' music to the respected executive.)

"It was a very unlikely combination," Williams said. "I'm sure his buddies were going, 'What are you doing, Don? You're sinking all of your money into this.' But he thought that one day this would pay off, and with 'Leftoverture,' it did."

Buoyed by the driving and catchy opener, "Carry On Wayward Son," Kansas' fourth album, "Leftoverture," was a huge success that added the group to the era's list of flashy, dramatic rock bands that found mainstream audiences, including Boston and Styx.

"That was the one that put us on the map," Williams said. "That was the one that paid off all of the bills."

Kansas sporadically released new albums in the '80s and '90s, but the demand for its sound greatly diminished over time. ("There was a lot of time riding around the country in a bus, playing on Tuesday nights in a club, making no money," he said.)

As years went on, Kansas, now based in the Atlanta area, found a new generation of fans who discovered the group from song placements on TV ("Supernatural") and movies ("Old School"). Their singles making it to video games like "Guitar Hero" helped, too.

After Walsh's departure, Williams saw Platt — who most recently fronted the long-running Missouri act Shooting Star — as an opportunity to breathe new life into Kansas. Soon, Williams said, Kansas was performing live more than it had in years.

"[Platt] has a very strong voice, and is a really good entertainer. Very durable," Williams said.

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"All of a sudden, we have the ability to do 100 shows in a year."

Platt sings on "The Prelude Implicit," but Williams said it fell on Ehart and him to put the entire band's parts "through the meat grinder" to achieve the Kansas sound. (Other members of the band, all in their 50s and 60s, include bassist Billy Greer, keyboardist David Manion, violinist/guitarist David Ragsdale and guitarist Zak Rizvi.)

"I don't really know what Kansas is, but I know what it isn't," Williams said. "The goal on this record was to be as quintessentially Kansas as we possibly could."

On Friday, Kansas will work songs from "Prelude" into its 2 1/2-hour set, but this tour is more about celebrating the 40th anniversary of "Leftoverture." The band will play the eight-track album in its entirety, in sequence.

Williams hopes the band will take the "Leftoverture" tour throughout the world, which would keep them on the road for most of next year. In 2017, he also wants to find time to record the next album, since Kansas has no plans of hanging its instruments up soon. To stop while he can still perform would be to quit, Williams said, and that's something he refuses to do.

"This is a new start for us," he said. "It's kind of a do-over. We're going to grab it with gusto."

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