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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016 01:31 pm

Kiss gives it up for Springfield

Fair concert features politicians, nostalgia

Gene Simmons, bassist and founding member of Kiss, acts scary during Wednesday's show.
Photos by Bruce Rushton.


Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder hoisted the two-fingered rock-and-roll salute, the crowd booed at the mention of Gov. Bruce Rauner. And there were also plenty of pyrotechnics and never-gets-old theatrical tricks as Kiss paid a visit to the Illinois State Fair on Wednesday.

There is something magical about a formula that allows men in their mid-60s to take stage looking as they did 40 years ago and get paid for it. Mick Jagger might look good for his age, but a boatload of theatrical makeup is the real key to eternal rock-and-roll youth.

After shedding original members Ace Frehley (lead guitar) and Peter Criss (drummer), Kiss in 1983 began a just-plain-hair-band era by appearing without makeup on the cover of Lick It Up, the 11th of 20 studio albums. It almost seemed a shameless gimmick. The band returned to makeup 20 years ago, but acknowledged the breadth of its career on Wednesday with vintage pictures of the band during the unmasked era projected behind the stage. They also played a fine rendition of “Lick It Up” that featured teases of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Kiss’ last studio album was released in 2012, but this was, not surprisingly, an oldies show. Just four songs in the 90-minute set were first recorded after Criss and Frehley were replaced more than 30 years ago, and “Psycho Circus,” the most recent selection, came out in 1998. “I Was Made For Loving You,” one of the group’s biggest selling singles, was nowhere in evidence. The crowd came to hear pros performing basic rock-and-roll, not dalliances into disco.

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The performance Wednesday was as fun as it was predictable. Of course bassist Gene Simmons breathed fire and spat fake blood. Of course the audience screamed and sang along. Of course onstage flash pots kept going off, breathing flames skyward with heat much evident from 25 feet away. At points, it became almost quaint.

“I’ve got a question for you,” guitarist Paul Stanley asked near the show’s end. “How many of you know a song called ‘Black Diamond?’” Pause to allow screams of delight and much whooping. “Maybe you can sing it with us!” Many people undoubtedly woke up hoarse the next morning.

This is a band that knows its audience as well as a band possibly can, and Kiss doesn’t countenance surprises. Vinnie Vincent, a former lead guitarist, was dismissed in the 1980s in part because his solos lasted too long for the other members’ liking. Ask Alice Cooper: The secret to successful metal-glam American rock is keeping it tight, and Kiss knows all the secrets to squeezing love from an audience, sometimes to a fault.

“We don’t always play this one,” Stanley said after professing the band’s fondness for Springfield and just before launching into “Flaming Youth.” In fact, Kiss has failed to play “Flaming Youth” just once in 26 shows since the band’s Freedom To Rock tour began on July 4. Then again, Kiss also went on a farewell tour more than a dozen years ago. Stanley has suggested in the press that the band could go on forever without any original members, akin to the Harlem Globetrotters. After all, you can’t see their faces, so who really cares?

Patriotism is also good business, and Kiss played that angle hard on Wednesday, with Stanley telling the audience that the band will donate $150,000 to help veterans returned from overseas. He also led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance near the show’s end before the band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The night ended with Stanley smashing a red-white-and-blue guitar and giving it to the audience at the conclusion of “Rock And Roll All Night.”

“It’s not the politicians, it’s the military that makes this country great,” Stanley told the crowd midway through a three-song encore. “Patriotism is always cool.”

Langfelder and state comptroller Leslie Munger took the stage during the encore, with the mayor getting plenty of applause and cheers for presenting the band with a key to the city, raising his arm in the air in the classic two-finger rock-and-roll salute first popularized by Black Sabbath and declaring his support for “the freedom to rock and roll.” You really had to be there. Munger thanked the band for supporting veterans and received a gracious reception but boos broke out when she said that she was there on behalf of Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Stanley and Simmons handled most of the vocals Wednesday, but musical highlights included “Shock Me,” sung by lead guitarist Tommy Thayer (the youngster of the group at age 55). Thayer’s solo here was impressive, and the rest of the band rightfully stood back as the stage went dark and the spotlight focused on him. Eric Singer left his drum kit to come to center stage to sing “Beth,” a version that differed markedly from the original that was performed by the departed Criss. Released 40 years ago, the original, with string accompaniment, harmonizing straight from Phil Spector and a youthful voice singing lead, has an element of saccharine, but Wednesday’s version came off as more wisened, with Singer’s voice carrying a touch of whiskey-and-cigarettes that proved a fine vehicle for reinventing a classic.

Simmons was an eye magnet throughout, scowling at all the right moments and striking signature I’m-a-god-of-rock poses that he’d copyright if he could, and no one would blame him. His bass solo on “God Of Thunder” was pedestrian, but that’s beside the point. Simmons has never claimed to be a virtuoso. He is a showman, and the sounds he extracts from his instrument are as much springboards for visual effects as bass lines. He owes no apologies.

The Setlist:
Detroit Rock City
Shout It Out Loud
Do You Love Me
I Love It Loud
Flaming Youth
God Of Thunder
Psycho Circus
Shock Me
Cold Gin
Lick It Up
War Machine
Love Gun
Black Diamond

Star Spangled Banner
Rock And Roll All Night


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