People who complain that Kiss shows are lame have never been to a Kiss show. Because here's the thing about any concert you go to by the veteran New York-bred greasepaint rockers: You will get 100 percent. Paul Stanley's vocals (always from the rough side of town) may be a bit thin a times, and perhaps bassist Gene Simmons stomps more deliberately in his massive high-heeled dragon boots than he did 30 years ago, but in all the times I've seen the band over the past 20 years, never once have they phoned it in.
Which is why Kiss is also recession-proof. A perfect example was their hit-packed show at Cincinnati's Riverbend Amphitheater on Friday night (July 30). Yes, it was nearly identical to one I saw years ago at Dodgers Stadium, but ask anyone in the maniacal sold-out audience what they thought and you were likely to get a raucous high five from someone wearing a Kiss T-shirt who was modeling Kiss face paint and dragging along a couple of third generation mini-Kiss fans whose minds were just blown. And, chances are, they just got out of the merch line where they bought their umpteenth concert tee.
I brought along a skeptical friend who had never seen the band for a stop on their "Hottest Show On Earth" tour, and by the time the massive confetti canons were belching two forests-worth of fluff into the air during the blinding fireworks explosion that was "Rock and Roll All Nite," he too was one of those high-fivers who couldn't get the grin off his face.
The show had all the highlights you expect: Digital flames licking the stage on more than two dozen high-def screens during the Detroit boogie of "Firehouse," Gene spitting fire from atop a sword, Paul smacking his ass during "Deuce," a trip to visit "Dr. Love," replacement guitarist Tommy Thayer doing his best approximation of original ax man Ace Frehley's knock-kneed rag doll stumble while shooting pyro loads from the headstock of his guitar before sending the spent instrument up into the rafters on a wire and replacement drummer Eric Singer crooning the ballad "Beth" and blasting down a fake lighting rig with a bazooka from his drum riser, which was levitating 30 feet in the air with smoke shooting out as if it was a rocket taking off.
The music swung at times from the bubblegum roller disco of the Bay City Rollers to the dinosaur stomp of Led Zeppelin, but I forgot the kinship the band shared with bands like Black Sabbath until the opening rumbling of "100,000 Years" from their debut album. Gene busted out his ax-shaped bass for that tune as Paul showed off his Roger Daltrey-like mic swinging action. (In a testament to the strength of that 1974 disc, they played five songs from it, including the disco glam of "Black Diamond" with Singer on vocals.)
Just past the show's halfway point, the strobes started going and everyone know what that meant: Simmons was going to bubble fake blood out of his mouth during a Kabuki theater interlude that gave way to the swaggering thunder rock of "Wanna Hear It Loud."
"Love Gun" ended with a choreographed fireworks mini-display that brought back the song's melody in firecracker explosions, and during the giant flash-bangs of "Detroit Rock City," the flames on stage were so intense you could feel them on your face 25 rows back. Stanley promised the longest encore ever, which began with a charity check for military families, a full run through the Pledge of Allegiance and a bombastic, extended jam on the '80s unmasked hit "Lick It Up" (which featured a quick bit of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again"). No show is complete without Paul putting his boot into a silver ring and flying out over the audience to a revolving turntable satellite stage mid venue for a shimmy through the satin pants classic "I Was Made For Lovin' You," and everyone in the place busted out their digital cameras for the night's fly-over.
What makes Kiss even more recession-proof is that there are no downer songs and no morbid ballads — just joyful, triumphant celebrations of non-stop fun like "Shout It Out Loud" and the standard Argent cover "God Gave Rock N Roll to You II," which Kiss play as if it's their "Hey Jude," swaying arms and all. I joked that the former needed a burst of confetti canons, but when they started belching during "Rock and Roll All Nite," there wasn't a frown in the joint. From the guy up front to the dude in a half-shirt making out with his girl on the back of the lawn, everyone came, everyone was rocked.
Amid the eye-searing spectacle and pageantry, though, the image that stuck with me was of the 12-year-old who stood on his seat the whole show right in front of me. He kept waving his arms hoping for one of the shower of guitar picks Stanley was flicking (and spitting) out into the crowd like a machine gun. But, more than 50 yards back, there was no chance this little guy was going to go home with his schwag.
Except he did. Paul seemed to spot him and gave a super-flick of a pick out over the pavilion crowd that landed at the kids' feet. His dad fumbled around for it among the empty beer cups on the floor and handed it to his Kiss Kid like it was Charlie Bucket's golden ticket to the Wonka factory. The kid thrust his hand up in the air and displayed it, earning a shower of back slaps and high fives from the Kiss Army soldiers all around him.
Guess which kid will never miss another Kiss show?