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Concert review: KISS show electrifies the senses

Gene Simmons (from left), Tommy Thayer and Paul Stanley of KISS perform at Amsoil Arena in Duluth on Wednesday night during their Freedom of Rock Tour. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Gene Simmons of KISS licks his bass guitar while performing at Amsoil Arena in Duluth Wednesday evening during the Freedom to Rock tour. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

It's extremely uncool to like KISS, these days. And, if we're being honest, the hate is pretty justified.

The band, seemingly, now exists solely as a capitalistic money-farming machine who lends their likenesses to virtually any product that can be adorned with their made-up visages, including coffins, arena football teams, and knives. Bassist Gene Simmons is nearing Ted Nugent levels of egomania and tastelessness when it comes to his endless stream of tone-deaf, obnoxious comments in the press about women or Islam or rap music (even his own bandmate Paul Stanley had to recently take to Twitter to lambaste Simmons' cruel comments on the death of Prince as “cold” and “clueless”). Original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss have been replaced by ringers who wear their signature makeup and costumes. The list goes on. And then it goes on some more.

Plus, their music – the thing that they ostensibly exist to deliver – just ain't that great. Really, since the late 70's, they've mostly trafficked in lecherous, brain-dead glam metal and reheated hard rock filled with doltish double-entendres and empty sloganeering. And their stuff before that – the “good stuff” – is often subpar (have you listened to, say, “Great Expectations,” recently?).

All that said, when you're standing in the crowd, the lights go down, and the band emerges in a fusillade of pyro and blinding flashes and drops the undeniable anthem “Detroit Rock City,” it's hard to not crack a smile.

When you're watching KISS, you don't think about the times Simmons has made a fool out of himself. You see The Demon, a towering monster spitting blood and fire. You see Stanley, the Starchild, flying through the air like he's in the Cirque du Soleil. You see the Catman on a hydraulic drum riser and the Spaceman shooting rockets from his guitar's headstock. A KISS show, more now than ever, is a specially-designed assault on the senses, with simple rock songs holding it all together. And this was true of their Wednesday show at Amsoil Arena.

After an opening set by painfully boring American Idol person Caleb Johnson, who has a powerful voice but woefully generic material, the house lights went off, the sirens sounded, and the giant banner with the KISS logo dropped to reveal the Kabuki rockers. They descended to the stage from a platform as bursts of flames shot into the air behind them. From the middle of the audience, the heat from the fireballs could be felt.

Throughout the first few songs, the band let loose with more pyrotechnics than most rock acts normally manage during an entire tour. Each number was punctuated with fire, or sparks, or stroke-inducing lights. As the evening wore on, there was fog, streamers, confetti – the whole works. It's tempting to say it was overkill, but this is KISS we're talking about, so the more bangs and booms there were, the better.

Stanley – who is legendary for his over-the-top stage patter – was in fine form in that regard, screeching out goofy intros to many songs in a bizarre Edith Bunker voice (“How's it sound out d'ere?”), wordlessly dividing the crowd in two and pitting the sides against each other in a scream battle during a kind of mime act that defies description, and thanking Duluth for putting the band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which, uh, could be disputed). At one point, he brought up a little girl to play guitar with no explanation. It was adorable and confusing.

The group sounded good, not great. Drummer Eric Singer may have been dressed as Peter Criss, but he didn't play with the same feel as his predecessor. Nor did guitarist Tommy Thayer, who weirdly sang an Ace Frehley song (“Shock Me”) while wearing Frehley's clothes. Stanley's voice is nowhere near what it once was, and he often altered melody lines to accommodate his 64-year-old vocal cords. Simmons, for his part, sounded pretty good vocally, but it was his stage presence that truly mattered most, as usual. Watching him stalk around and flick his famous, freakishly long tongue, you'd forget he was 66 and not four decades younger. The makeup sure helps.

The show took a turn for the bizarre in the encore. After the fake Criss sang Criss' hit song “Beth,” Stanley talked about freedom and how it's not free, brought out an honor guard and City Councilor Noah Hobbs, who proclaimed August 3 “KISS Day,” and then announced that it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance, which the band led the crowd in. Then, the group played a rock version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” while a giant flag waved on the LED screen behind the band. It was, to say the least, weird and way excessive to the point of seeming jingoistic.

But, again, that's KISS. If you want to see an artist speak thoughtfully about patriotism and sacrifice, go see Bruce Springsteen. At a KISS concert, reality is warped somehow. It's all funhouse mirrors, with them.

At the end of the show, things got seriously preposterous. As the band wrapped up their anthem “Rock and Roll All Night,” the pyro went absolutely bonkers, nearly becoming a straight-up fireworks display. Simmons and Thayer rode over the audience on hydraulic lifts. Streamers and confetti showered the crowd. And then, during the last moments, an odd beeping was heard over the P.A. The band hit their last accent, the lights went out, and a robotic voice was heard to say “Elevator. Elevator.”

It seemed that KISS had actually managed to set off the Amsoil's fire alarms. Given the amount of thick smoke that the band left lingering in the arena, it was no surprise.

While KISS will never be widely considered one of the best bands of all time, it was hard to stand in the audience during their bombastic Olympic opening-ceremonies performance – perhaps the last one they'll ever do in Duluth, given their ages and the fact that they last played here in 1990 – and think that there will ever be anyone else who knows how to put on a spectacle as well as they do. Plus, hey, “Deuce” is a pretty good tune, right?

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