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'70s rock treasure Kansas thrills full house at Den

The Bear's Den, a roughly 400-seat theater inside Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel, is unique among Buffalo-area concert venues.

Because events held within it are "casino gigs," prices are kept low, and the level of talent brought to the venue's stage far exceeds that which ticket sales alone would dictate.

Translation? We get to see, in an incredibly intimate setting, bands we're used to seeing either as part of bigger bills in vast arena environments, or headlining stages at massive free outdoor summer shows.

Saturday, Kansas -- one of the finest and most often overlooked bands of the '70s -- brought its epic, grandiloquent sonic attack to the Den, and thrilled the full house with the majestic presence of its sound.

Though the band achieved platinum status in the late '70s with the albums "Leftoverture" and "Point of Know Return," its idiosyncratic but appealing blend of British prog-rock with Americana -- country, R&B, bluegrass, folk and the influence of folks like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein -- has never really been duplicated.

Only three of the band's original five members -- keyboardist/vocalist Steve Walsh, guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart -- are still in the band, but the Kansas sound is intact, thanks to bassist/vocalist Billy Greer, who has been with the group nearly 20 years, and violinist/guitarist/vocalist David Ragsdale, who has filled in during the coming and going spells of original fiddle player Robbie Steinhardt.

Saturday, the band tore through its catalog, concentrating mainly on material from its '70s albums -- but still spending time with later fare like the eloquent "Wheels" -- and thrilled a multiage crowd with its heady mix of passion, incredibly virtuosic musicianship, and the sheer imaginative genius of its compositions. Many of these songs were written by the departed Kerry Livgren, who retired from touring years ago but kept his hand in the Kansas recording and composing camp. Livgren's presence was felt throughout Saturday's show, particularly when the band encored with its biggest hits, the Livgren-penned "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry On Wayward Son."

Walsh has always been the voice of Kansas, however, and the years have done little to wear away the incredible power of his voice, though some of the highest notes -- a challenge for any singer of any age -- exceeded his grasp on Saturday, and were wisely left out.

The set list pulled out the rare bits -- the burning "Sparks of the Tempest," the beautifully over-the-top "Magnum Opus" -- and butted them against ambitious pieces that drove the crowd to a standing frenzy, the stunning "Belexes" being the most obvious example.

What a treasure, this music, and how well it has aged.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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