March 18, 2011
By Howard Cohen
Photo by Dean Snowden for KISSonline

You can take Kiss out of the arenas, but you can’t take the arena show out of Kiss.

The veteran, face-painted hard rock band scaled down its stage show a bit to fit its thunderous act into the 5,000-seat Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood Thursday night. Still, the volume of its music and the plentiful pyrotechnics packed enough wattage to delight an all-ages crowd.

In fact, one might have checked the calendar on their smart phone because Kiss drew so many pre-teens and their parents who dressed in Kiss face paint and, in many cases, full Kiss regalia, one might think it was 1979 again.

Given the already surreal manufactured reality of the colorful Seminole grounds, it almost felt like stepping onto the set of the Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park movie with hundreds of big and little Kiss extras.

“We don’t usually get to play places this small,” lead singer Paul Stanley screamed after Kiss opened its two-hour concert with a newer headbanger, Modern Day Delilah, from its return-to-form 2009 album, Sonic Boom.

“Makes us feel we’re back in the old days,” he continued, “so we’re going to play old classic stuff.”

Stanley, 59, then led his Kiss founding partner Gene Simmons and replacement members Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer into a set heavy on songs from the first eponymous Kiss album in early 1974 like Cold Gin, Black Diamond and Firehouse, a simple, but effective rocker that still ends with piercing fire alarms and spinning red lights.

Other oldies included Let Me Go, Rock and Roll, 100,000 Years, Detroit Rock City and the standard ‘70s bathroom break the guitar and drum solos following Thayer’s lead on Shock Me. However, Kiss always keeps these instrumental passages interesting given that the lead guitarist’s instrument belches fireworks and the drummer cues explosions in the rafters. The solos mercifully ended before they wore out their welcome.

The one sign that this wasn’t your parents’ Kiss could be found in Stanley’s voice which no longer is quite the pliable, effortlessly operatic instrument it once was in the 1970s and 1980s. Decades of screaming songs in their original high keys have worn Stanley’s voice to the nub on newer material like the anthemic Say Yeah, ‘80s numbers like Crazy, Crazy Nights (a surprise, and welcome addition to the setlist) and the 1977 Kiss classic, Love Gun. On that audience favorite, Stanley’s patchy vocals were nicely and wisely augmented with some helpful vocal fills from drummer Singer.

Curiously, though, as the show went on toward its exciting hit-heavy encore set, Stanley’s voice seemed to gain strength and smooth out a little. He sounded pretty good on the disco-era smash, I Was Made for Loving You, which actually requires vocal range and he nailed it quite well. Stanley, the group’s indefatigable cheerleader, also brought it home good and hard on the terrific Lick It Up, Shout It Out Loud and the closing Rock and Roll All Nite.

Simmons, 61, whose songs aren’t pitched so high, sounded remarkably well preserved on his growling signature tunes, Calling Dr. Love, Deuce and I Love It Loud.

Time, and the Kabuki demon makeup, have been kind to Simmons. He hasn’t lost a step. His fire breathing and blood spewing shtick still can make you feel 14 again.

The only difference with this venue’s show is that Simmons couldn’t do his usual God of Thunder fly up into the rafters act and the concert’s staging was flat and simple until the finale when he and Thayer rose on lifts as a confetti machine sent a blizzard over fans and Independence Day-worthy fireworks exploded all around the band.

Kiss could make better use of its other two characters, however. This is still the Paul and Gene Show, perhaps fair since they are the individuals who kept Kiss alive over the years as guitarists and drummers came and went, but Kiss have gems in Thayer and Singer. The latter, now in Peter Criss’ original cat makeup and a more muscular rock drummer than his ‘70s predecessor, nicely sang the group’s one ballad, the lovely Beth, in acoustic form and handled his leads on the driving Black Diamond with vigor.

Thayer only had the Shock Me set piece but he reproduced Ace Frehley’s leads on guitar throughout the night and should have been given more time in the lead vocal spotlight, perhaps on more of Frehley’s tunes or, better yet, his fine contribution to Sonic Boom, When Lightning Strikes.

Above all, given the theatrical limitations in a non-arena show, Kiss’ music had to carry the load and what this performance revealed is that the influential Kiss catalog has aged well, its energy and hooks can still excite young and old, and the snobbish bean counters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame really are clueless and remiss for ignoring Kiss’ considerable contribution to rock and roll.