The scene: June 28, 1996. Detroit, Michigan. For the first time, in 13 years, Kiss is playing its first show in makeup with the original lineup of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss. It's nearly midnight at the now-defunct Tiger Stadium, and despicable opening acts Alice in Chains and Sponge have long vacated the stage. Helicopters with spotlights circle the venerable baseball stadium as nearly 45,000 fans await the return of the "hottest band in the world." The band takes the stage, opening with "Deuce," then "Strutter", then "Let Me Go Rock and Roll," and playing two hours of classic 70s-era Kiss tunes, closing with, you guessed it, "Detroit Rock City."
Fast-forward 13 years to the "Kiss Alive 35" tour, which stopped in Glendale's Jobing.com Arena on Tuesday night. Not a whole lot has changed. Kiss opens with the same three songs and closes with the nearly the same encore of "Shout It Out Loud," "Love Gun," and "Detroit Rock City." The addition of the 1983 hit "Lick It Up" is only the aberration. Of course, no one at Jobing.com Arena is complaining. Like watching your favorite movie over and over to experience the same emotions, the same thrills again and again, seeing the cartoon rockers in their Destroyer-era costumes provides a familiar sense of comfort to the aging head-bangers in the crowd and, for the numerous Gen-Y'ers (and much younger), a glimpse of what was so powerful about the pre-eminent shlock-rockers of the 1970s.
Kiss is like Christmas. The hype rarely lives up to the event. That's not to stay the event's bad, but to the uninitiated, there's no way it can be as sublime as advertised. If you've seen footage of Gene spitting blood or Paul smashing his guitar or Ace shooting fireworks out of his Les Paul (and who hasn't?), seeing it live is exciting -- but by no means transcendent. If you've heard Paul do the "Cold Gin" rap on any number of Kiss live recordings, there's nothing new to be heard in a concert setting in 2009. And so it was Tuesday night at Jobing.com Arena. It's good fun, but it's old hat.
Surprises are few and far between during the "Kiss Alive 35" show. However, there are several rewards: Gene's voice is in excellent shape throughout the show (in fact, the "Demon" is on top of his game. He is the one Kiss member who seems genuinely enthused to be onstage playing the same songs the band's played since 1974, and he generates some legitimate chills during his classic blood-spitting routine, which appears before he sings "I Love It Loud" perched on the light stanchion high above the stage); longtime drummer Eric Singer far outshines anything Peter Criss ever did behind the drum kit and provides convincing lead vocals on "Black Diamond" and unexpectedly good harmonies throughout much of the set; and longtime Kiss guitar tech Tommy Thayer (now starring in the role of "Space Ace") bests Frehley in replicating the solos Ace made famous and exceeds expectations while singing lead (and sounding a lot like Ace) on Frehley's signature tune, "Shock Me."
Paul Stanley's incessant between-song talking proves to be the biggest drag on the two-hour, 15-minute performance. During Kiss' double-platinum heyday of the '70s, the "Star Child" kept the chitchat to a minimum; his well-rehearsed stage banter was cheesy but effective. On Tuesday night, it is simply cheesy -- and that's being charitable. Sure, Paul gets points for being incredibly fit, perpetually in motion, and being the most flexible and active of the band, despite being nearly 60 years old. But aside from his distressingly flamboyant mincing about the stage, as if he were in a heavy-metal drag show, he commits a couple of big-time onstage sins: At one point, he goads the audience into "getting off your butts and getting into Walmart" to buy Sonic Boom, a "new" album by Kiss featuring a bunch of re-recorded Kiss classics and a handful of passable-to-below-average new songs (of which "Modern Day Delilah" and "Say Yeah" are sandwiched into the set list and during which this blogger made vital beer runs). And toward the end of the show, Stanley turns the spotlight on the many pre-teen members of the "next generation of the Kiss Army" in the not-quite-sold-out audience before, in the next breath, lauding Arizona Kiss fans and their willingness through the decades to "open their arms -- and their legs -- to Kiss." Really?
That being said, the band gives the people what they want: flashpots, blood, classic songs, flashpots, fire-breathing, great costumes and frenetic light show, flashpots, and a high-energy performance. Gene proves why he is a consummate showman (yes, Gene's doing it for the money but he also obviously really likes performing these songs); Singer and Thayer punch up the tunes with musicianship and verve often lacking in Ace and Peter's performances; Paul, over-the-top though he is, is in fine form, his voice nearly as powerful as it was three decades ago and his ability to jump, prance, and dance in those silver platform boots cannot be overstated.
Watching Kiss, it's apparent at this point in their career that they're more Cirque du Soleil than they are a real rock 'n' roll act. The unexpected is not to be expected at a Kiss show (though their nod to the coda of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" during the otherwise lamentable 1983 hit "Lick It Up" was a pleasant surprise). But their predictability seems to be part of a covenant between Kiss and their fans. And to Kiss' credit, as scripted as Paul's climactic speech is, it still seems genuinely extemporaneous when he tells the assembled that a Kiss concert isn't about solving the problems of the world, it's about rocking 'n' rolling all night and partying every day.
Last Night: Kiss at Jobing.com Arena
Personal Bias: Ace Frehley is a hero of mine. I've always found Paul to be really annoying. Gene is an undeniable genius but a reprehensible individual. And no rock 'n' roll band should ever acknowledge the presence of children at their show or, in general, children's existence in the world. Period.
Better Than: Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen giving away Cheap Trick T-shirts to children(!) onstage at the Milwaukee Zoo before launching into the band's seminal "He's a Whore."
Further Listening: Kiss' guest appearance on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special and their starring role in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.