WANTAGH, New York — Program note: At this evening's performance of "Kiss," the role of Ace Frehley will be played by Tommy Thayer.
This is significant because Thayer, a former member of '80s band Black 'N' Blue and the Kiss tribute band Cold Gin, isn't onstage to showcase his personality. He's here to be Frehley's understudy, complete with the rocker's trademark "Space Ace" makeup, as Frehley opted not to tour this time in order to work on a solo album.
Like Thayer, the remaining members of Kiss — vocalist and guitarist Paul Stanley, bassist Gene Simmons and drummer Peter Criss — play roles and act from a script. In that regard, a Kiss show isn't that different from "Les Miserables," an Italian opera or Japanese Kabuki theater.
At the Jones Beach Theater on Monday night (click to see photos), there are the opening stage explosions, the screen shots revealing the band's storied history, the dramatic musical build with golden oldies like "Strutter" and "Shout It Out Loud," the scene where Simmons spits blood and then rises in the air, bat wings spread, and the climactic conclusion, which provides more bang for your buck than "Terminator 3."
Then there's the banter of Stanley, who spouts rehearsed lines like, "When you come see us, every seat is the front row 'cuz we can see you and we can feel you!" Though his words border on cliché, his sentiment seems heartfelt and his timing is precise. At the conclusion of "Love Gun," a bouquet of roses lands onstage and Stanley places a stem between his teeth just as streams of sparks blast into the sky.
Kiss are easy to love because they're as visually captivating and cerebral as professional wrestling. Their music is rudimentary and catchy and their chant-along choruses are as memorable as TV jingles. Stanley still commands a crowd like a televangelist, and sings with passion and force, sending his voice up and down the register during "I Want You," sounding like Christina Aguilera singing the "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Of course, many Kiss songs rely mostly on theatrics. During "Firehouse," red spinning lights illuminate the crowd and Simmons blows a ball of fire, and for the set closer, "Black Diamond," Criss' kit rises high into the air. But when the "KISS" light bulb sign is glowing and pyro is exploding, it doesn't matter that the band is playing only three chords or singing the same words over and over. How can you argue with 50-foot jets of flame?
The band's set includes the hits "Detroit Rock City," the off-key, Criss-fronted "Beth," and the band's calling card, "Rock and Roll All Nite," as well as lesser known fare including "I Love It Loud" and "100,000 Years."
At one point, Stanley shouts, "This feels so good, I think we're gonna come back and do it again Wednesday night. But the question of the night is, 'Do You Love Me?' " The roar of the crowd says it all.
Like Kiss, Aerosmith are a theatrical bunch. Just to make sure he still looks like a star, the stage is scattered with powerful electric fans that give frontman Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry that rockin' windblown look wherever they roam.
But while Kiss rely on bells and whistles to anchor their show, Aerosmith's frills merely embellish a presentation that would stand alone with no lights or effects. The band's gritty, no-nonsense rock songs and lovesick power ballads are uplifting and reassuring.
Aerosmith get the party started on a slow boil with "Let the Music Do the Talking," from 1985's Done With Mirrors, before turning up the gas with three hits in a row, "Mama Kin," "Love in an Elevator" and "Rag Doll." Tyler and Perry navigate the length of the stage and make frequent trips up a runway that extends halfway through the floor crowd.
With all the charisma and energy of the pair, it's easy to forget there are three other members in Aerosmith. But rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford and bassist Tom Hamilton seem content playing at opposite sides of the stage, only grabbing the spotlight when Tyler or Perry pose next to them. And drummer Joey Kramer certainly lacks the flash of Peter Criss, yet he provides the heartbeats that propel the band's songs.
Even after 33 years with Aerosmith, Tyler sounds hungry and lustful. His cigarette rasp soars over the group's ragged rhythms, and though he can't always hit the super-high parts (most noticeable when he drops an octave on "Back in the Saddle"), he still has a fierce banshee wail that recalls the glass-breaking moments of old Memorex commercials.
In the middle of the set, the band performs three songs from its upcoming blues album, due early next year. First comes a cover of the Fisher/Hopkins-penned song "Shame, Shame, Shame," which they grace with a throbbing rock vibe. Then Aerosmith tone it down for a cover of Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" before tearing up the house again with Muddy Waters' "Baby Please Don't Go." During all three, Tyler belts it out like a Memphis farm boy, and the band provides aching accompaniment that belies its Boston roots.
Of course, the audience is here for the hits, and Aerosmith don't disappoint. They play just one song from Nine Lives, "Pink," and nothing from their last album, Just Push Play. Instead, Aerosmith offer the crowd heavy doses of '70s songs and comeback hits from the late '80s.
There's no doubt Aerosmith are serious about rocking, but they also have a sense of humor. During "Walk This Way" Tyler saunters down the runway in a frilly red women's hat. And in the middle of "Sweet Emotion," Perry performs a Spinal Tap-like solo on theramin and a video depicts shots of "Jackass"-influenced idiots holding instruments while crashing down hills and falling off skate ramps.
At the end of the show clouds of confetti blow through the theater, making it difficult to see Tyler gyrate, preen and croon to "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)." When the house lights go on, hundreds of crowd members are still pulling multicolored bits of paper out of their hair. The band's performance may stick with them even longer.